BASKETBALL ISN’T THE only thing getting college students riled up this time of year.
Last March, Brad Chisum, a recent business-school graduate from San Diego State University and co-founder of Lumedyne Technologies, a company that operates a patented sensor technology, was in the throes of Rice University’s business-plan competition in Houston. “The Rice competition was very intense,” says Chisum, who with the help of teammate Nick Rhea presented his business three times over a three-day period alongside 35 other teams from top MBA programs around the world.
Despite not winning their first formal contest in Houston, Chisum and Rhea went on to compete in five more b-plan competitions, taking first prize in the prestigious Global Moot Corp. Competition, an international contest hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. In less than six months, the team won more than $200,000 in prizes, rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq Stock Market and wound up with a heap of exposure. “We were suddenly famous on campus,” says Chisum.
Beyond potentially attracting publicity for their businesses, entrepreneurs like these competitions because they can develop and pitch their fledgling business ideas to real investors and get professional-grade feedback. They also stand to win cash prizes — typically, ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per competition — plus coveted business services, such as accounting and marketing help.
Despite these benefits, Stan Mandel, the head of Wake Forest University’s entrepreneurship program in Winston-Salem, N.C., says that “the competitive landscape is changing at various universities.” Some contests are seeing fewer entries as start-up entrepreneurs flock to competitions that may be more lucrative or inclusive, such as those sponsored by nonprofits, product makers and even publications. Hosting a competition is “just like running a business,” Mandel says. “A certain strategy is good for a period of time, and then you need to switch it.”
To keep the entrepreneurial juices flowing in their direction, some schools are changing the rules to allow non-MBA candidates, alumni, and even people who aren’t students to participate. Other schools are upping the stakes as well as adding unusual features to their business-plan competitions.
New York University, for instance, has opened its competition up to students from all over campus, and this year received a record 155 teams, or 450 student entries to participate. The school offers a total of $150,000 in cash, in addition to each winner receiving $10,000 worth of pro-bono services. Today, underclassmen, medical students and doctoral candidates in study areas beyond business can participate in the contest, which takes place in mid-April, as long as at least one member of the team has some business-school affiliation. That includes alumni as well, says Cynthia Franklin, the senior associate director of NYU Stern’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
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