Between the Dare to Dream grant program and the Michigan Business Challenge competition, both sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, startups campus-wide have won over $113,000 to boost their new businesses.
The Michigan Business Challenge, which initially included only the Ross School of Business, has been conducted for 31 years. The competition’s campus-wide scope has encouraged the mingling of various colleges within the University, creating more diverse, successful entrepreneurial teams.
In addition to the prize money awarded to the four finalists, other awards recognize specific strengths of a team: best-written business plan, outstanding presentation, participation, most successful undergraduate team, and the Williamson Award for the best cross-functional team. A total of six teams won these awards. The grand prize Pryor-Hale Award is worth $20,000, and the runner up receives $10,000.
Engineering graduate student Muhammad Faisal and Rackham student Daniel Andersen won the Pryor-Hale award for their startup, Movellus Circuits — a more efficient clock generator technology for microprocessors, which exist inside of every electronic device.
“I think that helps with creating stronger ideas and building stronger businesses,” said Sarika Gupta, program manager at the Zell Lurie Institute. “I think it’s all of the schools within U of M coming together and creating teams and learning how to build businesses together — that’s probably the bigger theme.”
The Michigan Business Challenge is comprised of four rounds, which become increasingly difficult as pitch time increases from three to 25 minutes. Startup teams apply in November and the competition ends in late February. The competition kicked off with 68 teams and was reduced to 16 by the second round.
The panel of judges expects the contestants to improve along the way, as they acquire the tools and knowledge to evaluate their own business from a more professional and realistic stance.
“Students who enter the competition don’t yet have a fully developed idea,” Gupta said. “They might be in the initial stages and we can help them go through that step by step process of developing their business.”
During Faisal’s doctoral research in the Department of Electrical Engineering, Faisal developed techniques for improving clock generators, which he calls the “heartbeat of all electronics” so that they consume less power, are lighter and are smaller. He added that even today, the systems are designed using techniques that are over four decades old.
Faisal had little background in business, but since the competition was campus-wide, decided to take his chances and sign up to give his pitch.
“I had been thinking about it for two years, but hadn’t taken any steps because I wasn’t sure how it was going to be, I didn’t go the business school, I didn’t know how it worked,” Faisal said. “But then I said ‘okay, I’m going to sign up for the competition and see what happens’ — it was really encouraging.”
He said that a large takeaway from the experience, aside from the prize money, which the team plans to use towards patents and customer acquisition, was learning how to deal with investors.
“The business school has provided me with all of the resources to develop my business plan, to really do some business development around my idea and at the same time, College of Engineering and the Tech Transfer Office have helped me really figure out what is it that I need, what are the next steps,” Faisal said.
The University is also helping to fund his postdoctoral studies after graduation so the idea may be further developed.
Daniel Andersen, also a founder of Movellus Circuits, said their collaboration has blended their distinct expertise to give them an advantage in the competition.
“It really helps for us to have a technology expert on the team, as well as me, coming from the business school and having the business background,” Andersen said. “Having a balance of the two really gave us an edge over some of the teams that maybe just had one or the other.”
The panel of judges rotates each round and is made up of entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists and service providers from the Ann Arbor area. Aside from the prospect of winning the cash awards, the competition also supports networking and business development. Finalists are evaluated based on their ability to take risks, proposed financial strategy, management capability, and competitive advantage in their industry.
Gupta added that even in the beginning rounds, it is typical for judges to show interest in teams, especially those involved in similar industries. By the end, some venture capitalists and investors ask the University, with whom they already have connections, to put them in touch with the competitors so that they may conduct further business.
During the competition, partners learn from each other’s background, but at the same time are exposed to the wider range of business ideas by conversing with other teams.
“What helps is learning from other people’s mistakes by watching other people present and see the questions that the judges asked.” Andersen said.
The University’s involvement extend past the boundaries of the competition, with the business school’s funding for Movellus Circuit to participate in various other business competitions at both the University of Texas in Austin and at Rice University in Houston. Andersen said that in preparation for these events, the Zell Lurie Institute matches them with professors who lead sessions as well as individual meetings based upon their own first hand knowledge of business.
The other finalists include Flipsi, a reusable water bottle that can be flipped inside-out, Keravnos Energy, an energy systems geared towards electric vehicle drivers and MyDermPortal, a web-based medical application that provides follow-up treatment more efficiently.
The finalist teams also won grants from the Dare to Dream program, which awarded a total of around $50,000 to startups this year. The program also offers business development seminars. Other resources available to startups through the University include the TechArb, a University startup accelerator that gives office space to promising student-run companies still in their early stages.
Startups do not always begin at the Ross School of Business. The University’s interdisciplinary approach to award allocation and startup program participation has helped the trend spread across campus.
“They’re definitely a lot of resources around campus to foster entrepreneurship,” Andersen said.