Business plan competitions give
flight to fledgling ideas
Not that long ago, Katie Hill and Russell Gottesman
were living in Chicago and wondering why nobody had ever
thought of selling 10-second audio ads on public buses
Today, they live in Dayton and run
Commuter Advertising, a startup with advertising
agreements in Dayton; Champaign, Ill.; Kansas City;
Toledo and Rockland County, N.Y.
While the idea itself may have seemed too good to
fail -- after all, public transportation systems are
starving for revenue and advertisers are always looking
for new ways to reach customers -- lots of innovators
fail because they don't know how to move an idea
from drawing board to marketplace.
That, in a nutshell, is what university business plan
competitions are all about. And Commuter Advertising is
a shining example of young Ohio companies that are
seeking out the business resources available by
participating in them.
Hill and Gottesman, who moved to Dayton as a result
of their first contract in 2009 with the Dayton Regional
Transit Authority, emerged the winner of the 2010
University of Dayton Business Plan Competition, one
that has grown from 24 entries four years ago -- the
first year of the competition -- to 82 entries this
"We had been revisiting our business plan over and
over, and felt this was a good place to see how it was
stacking up against other ideas in the marketplace,"
Hill says of the UD competition. "There are a series of
work sessions leading up to the competition -- coaching
that helps you tweak your elevator pitch, which is the
first round to get into the competition. And then, once
you get past that, sessions to help make sure you have
the content in your business plan that is really needed,
which is invaluable."
The payoff? A better refined business plan, a more
professional pitch and exposure to the big dogs who move
and shake within the venture capital and business
Not to mention the $20,000 prize Commuter Advertising
walked away with. Or a subsequent invitation to
participate in the prestigious
Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Cisco Global Business Plan
Competition, an international event in which Hill's
firm became the only finalist from Ohio. Or a
$300,000-award through the Ohio Third Frontier's
Entrepreneurial Signature Program earlier this year
to further build the company.
Dean McFarlin, chair of UD's Department of
Management/Marketing and NCR Professor of Global
Leadership Development in the School of Business
Administration, says business plan competitions are a
way to provide needed advice, mentoring and technical
assistance to businesses just starting out.
"It's hard to know how many competitions are run out
of universities," McFarlin says, "but I would say around
200 or so. If you look at the top 25 programs according
to Entrepreneur Magazine, there's not a single ranked
school that doesn't have a business plan competition."
McFarlin says universities have a number of
motivations for supporting nascent companies in this
"For some schools, the primary motivation is helping
to economically develop the region where the school is
located," he says. While that's one reason for UD's
contest, that's not the only motivation, McFarlin says.
"This is a terrific opportunity," he says "to create
exposure in the community, in the region, and the
country to help build the brand of our entrepreneurship
program" -- ranked among the top 10 undergraduate
programs in the country. "But the primary motivation, I
think, is education. We require as part of our
competition rules that if you make it to the final round
as an entry, you have to involve either a UD student or
a UD alum."
Fisher Business Plan Competition at Ohio State
University is open to the community at large but
requires teams to include at least one Ohio State
student or alumnus. Columbus-based
-- which is developing and demonstrating a non-ferral
treadmill that can be placed next to magnetic resonance
imaging equipment without interfering with the imaging
process -- finished second in the 2008 Fisher
Now housed at the
TechColumbus incubator, EXCMR's participation in
that contest was invaluable, says Gary Smith, the
company's director of commercialization.
"The competition sets the stage for
capturing intellectual property that might be sitting --
I don't want to say sitting idle, because these are
ideas that are trying to find their way out -- but it
provides an opportunity for a business assessment, a
market assessment, and then to establish a strategy for
how that commercialization might happen as a new
company," Smith says.
EXCMR recently attracted a $1.4-million
Third Frontier grant to help build and demonstrate
its treadmill systems at four locations around the
Nanofiber Solutions won the Fisher competition in
2009 and, like EXCMR, is maturing its business at
TechColumbus. Its innovation: a nanofiber that mimics
human tissue and thus can be used to grow cell cultures
that behave as they would in the body, rather than in a
standard petri dish. The technology has ramifications
for pharmaceutical development, STEM cell research and
in better understanding how cancer cells move from one
part of the body to another.
Winning the competition built momentum for the
company, says co-founder Jed Johnson, whose involvement
began with his Ph.D. research in the college of
engineering. Johnson, now chief technology officer, says
the competition "gave us a pretty major jump start with
some recognition and a little bit of startup cash
($85,000 in cash and in-kind services) and services from
local companies here."
Subsequently, Nanofiber Solutions won grants from
TechColumbus' Tech Genesis Fund, the National Institutes
of Health and the National Science Foundation.
In Cincinnati, Georg Weber, founder and CEO of
Theranostics, also has felt the benefits of
participating in business plan competitions.
In 2006, Weber -- who is also associate professor of
pharmacy at theUniversity
of Cincinnati -- participated in the Cincinnati
Creates Companies competition. A collaborative effort
among the UC College of Business,
Hamilton County Business Center,
Children's Hospital and others, the competition was
an 11-month course of intense classroom training,
structured mentorship and, finally, an internal business
plan competition in which participants vied for up to
$25,000 in seed funds.
Weber, who founded Metamol in 2007, says the
experience was crucial in his understanding of how
businesses work and how the business world views new
"The person who was my mentor kept joking that the
first version of my business plan was a technical
document on cancer -- not a business plan," Weber says.
"He helped me turn this into a business plan, and I
found it ended up being somewhat successful in external
business plan competitions."
MetaMol, which is working on a way to inhibit a
molecule that contributes to metastasis of cancer cells,
went on to enter the Purdue University Life Science
Challenge in 2006. While the company didn't make the
finals that year, a second try in 2007 landed MetaMol
fifth place and $10,000 -- which helped defray some of
Weber's patent costs.
EXCMR's Smith says while the exposure gained through
business plan competitions is valuable to both the
inventor and to universities, the real value is to the
community at large.
"Creating companies is what our economy needs."