Why Entrepreneurship is 'Catching Fire' at Florida Atlantic University

Like 'Hunger Games' heroine Katniss Everdeen, successful entrepreneurs understand the need to be adaptable to survive in the fierce world of business.

By Michael Solomon

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

To have their best shot at staying in the game, today's aspiring business leaders must learn to move swiftly from one idea and to another. The Business Plan Competition held by Florida Atlantic University's College of Business in Boca Raton was created to help these potential entrepreneurs find their passion.

More than 8,000 of FAU's almost 25,000 students participate in undergraduate and post-grad business programs. Under the leadership Dr. Daniel Gropper, Dean of the College of Business and the Director of the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship and Assistant Dean Kimberly Gramm, the competition is open to anyone in one of three categories; The Young Entrepreneur Academy (YEA!), sponsored by the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, the FAU Student Track, and the Entrepreneur Track, for those who want to enter for a piece of the competition's $225,000 startup prize.

A key part of the program is a 10-week, 30-hour Entrepreneur Boot Camp that covers all facets of entrepreneurship. Boot Camp is a fast-paced certificate course that empowers promising entrepreneurs and ambitious small business owners with the tools to write a successful business plan, find financial support and design the right operation for success. It also includes access to mentor consultation through the Entrepreneur in Residence program.

Related: Keys to Business Success: 3 Lessons From the Masters

The Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program offers FAU students, faculty, alumni and FAU Business Plan competitors an opportunity to receive one-on-one mentoring with highly experienced entrepreneurs and executives. The Center's EIR program brings practical and pragmatic essentials to the entrepreneurs as they develop their business plans and launch of their new ventures.

All boot camp participants receive an FAU Certificate upon satisfactory completion of the class, but perhaps more importantly, students learn how to develop the hunger in their bellies that will help drive them to succeed.

Gramm, who has been leading the program since 2009, has seen innovative and competition-winning business plans like a gourmet ice cube for alcoholic beverages, computerized LED lighting which could reduce utility costs by over 75 percent, a mobile app that notifies police & campus security with your location in an emergency and even a design for women's jeans, which was pitched by a then 14-year-old YEA! student, who is currently in talks to produce her own clothing line.

The competition kicks off in November during Global Entrepreneurship Week and runs through the second week in April. After the plans are submitted in March, they are given to a panel of first round judges who review the plans and score them with criteria that focuses on product feasibility, industry competition, marketability and financial projections. The judges are volunteers who have a background in business and entrepreneurship.

Related: 3 Ways to Keep College Entrepreneurs' Dreams Alive, Even After Graduation

This year, out of 251 entrants, 16 finalists were selected, with eight in the student track and eight in the Entrepreneur Track. Once the finalists are chosen they go through an intense coaching process (known as the "Star Chamber") with a panel of mentors. The competitors then present their elevator pitches and ten-minute business plans.

At this point in the competition, the mentors proceed to take the business plans apart. The intent is not to tear the participants down, but to show them where their venture's strengths and weaknesses are. Some competitors have said they understand what being on the show Shark Tank must be like.

During the Kick-Off Reception, hosted the night before the final team presentations, finalists have a chance to give their ninety-second elevator pitch to an audience of invited guests. Those in attendance have the opportunity to vote on the best pitch of the evening. The winner receives a $5,000 "People's Choice Award." This year's prize was presented courtesy of the competition's silver sponsor, Office Depot.

Related: Don't Let These 7 Excuses Sink Your Startup

The competition culminates with final presentations to a panel of judges consisting of investors and entrepreneurs. Previous keynote speakers have included Bernie Marcus, Co-Founder of The Home Depot, Manny Medina, Founder of Terremark and Ralph De La Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility.

Jan Bednar, this year's student track winner started a company called BedaBox, which uses a sophisticated software application to help people overseas buy products in the U.S., whether it's a boat or pair of boots. "Even if I didn't win the competition, the experience and mentoring I received was priceless," said Bednar, who was awarded more than $36,000 in prize money to help him move to the next level.

The university's mission is to help build strength in the economy by promoting entrepreneurship. Who knows where the next great idea or invention will come from, and how many new jobs could be created as a result? Or, as Tim Gannon, co-founder of Outback Steak House and inventor of the Blooming Onion said in this year's keynote speech, "you must find your Velcro moment and invent something the world needs."

Related: Before You Strike Out on Your Own, Know These 3 Realities

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