@Fingertips, a student team that builds devices enabling blind people to use touch-screen technology, is one of 16 groups competing for an entrepreneurial grand prize of $20,000.
The competition, the Michigan Business Challenge, is a program at the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and is currently in its second of four stages. It offers students as much as $60,000 in funding and a forum for pitching a business venture idea that could lead to a successful business.
According to Anne Perigo, the program coordinator at the institute who manages the MBC, 45 teams presented their proposals in the first round of competition, which took place last Friday, and 16 teams made it to the second round and are in the running to win the top prize of $20,000.
However, money isn’t the only motivation for participants. Perigo said a significant number of student teams would like to see their business plans become reality.
“There are some that use this to really develop that business that they absolutely do intend to launch, often upon graduation,” Perigo said.
Business School graduate student P.K. Mishra, who is part of the @Fingertips team, said the biggest benefit of the MBC is that the teams experience all the challenges in making a business plan and the substantial amount of money the winner receives is enough to start a company.
“It’s, for me, the most enriching experience of being in the Business School,” he said. “To take an idea and launch a business out of it, it takes a lot more than just developing the technology.”
Business School senior David Spiro’s team, Thru.im, also made it to the second round and is in the process of creating a plan to develop a mobile and web application that allows consumers to text businesses about food orders and reservations. Spiro said his team participated in MBC last year but didn’t make it past the first round because this group members only focused on the technology aspect. This year, however, they learned how to create a business around that technology.
“We’re looking to build a better business more than anything,” Spiro said. “While we understand that there’s great cash prizes … we’re really most concerned with the long-term effect that MBC can have on us as entrepreneurs and us starting this business.”
Perigo said MBC is different than other programs across the country in that it lasts several months and has four rounds rather than just one week with a single round. As teams progress through each round, a new panel of judges — often entrepreneurs themselves — evaluates the feasibility and market viability of the ventures. In the final round, Perigo said, teams present to three venture capitalists in a “very realistic conversation … that pretty closely replicates what it’s like to get that first meeting with a venture capital firm.”
The expanded timeline also includes seven training seminars, which spread over the course of the competition and tutor participants in pitching their ideas, writing business plans and executive summaries and presenting to potential investors, Perigo explained.
“Really, the goal of Michigan Business Challenge is to … help students build their entrepreneurial skill set,” Perigo said.
Business School graduate student Sean Simpson, whose team, Autobike, has made it to the second round with a prototype of a bicycle that shifts gears automatically, said the trainings have been useful in helping his team members develop the business side of their project. He described the seminars as “a class (MBC is) offering for free,” noting that his other courses at the Business School don’t generally teach entrepreneurship skills.
According to Perigo, participants come from different areas of the University, and often, the multidisciplinary teams with students from various colleges and schools such as the Ross School of Business, College of Engineering, School of Information and School of Art & Design are the most successful. Perigo added that though graduate students tend to compete more than undergraduate students, there is a “nice balance” of students in terms of age and year.
Perigo said MBC is always looking to engage more students in the competition.
“We will continue to grow and change to make it what it needs to be (to assist student entrepreneurs),” Perigo said.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the competition is in its final stages. It is beginning its second of four stages.