Rosemary Garry and Lucas Williamson had problems.
Garry struggled to coordinate meeting times with Columbus businesspeople; Williamson kept breaking MacBook chargers. They created very different product-based companies to solve these problems, but they had a shared compass – Ohio State’s Center for Entrepreneurship and its Business Plan Competition.
Under the leadership of Dr. Michael Camp, the Center is an academic and research hub within the Fisher College of Business that offers a cross-disciplinary undergraduate minor and graduate-level courses. It opened its doors in 2001 and began the Business Plan Competition, which is available to any OSU student via an undergraduate track, and an open track for MBA and doctoral candidates. Student-led teams compete for money and in-kind support from corporate and institutional partners, and the top open-track team receives a year of free office space at TechColumbus headquarters.
“We give them the tools that they need to validate their concept and their customer base,” said Nikki Modlich, program coordinator for the competition. “I think that’s very important that they get those skills down, and then whether or not the business that they start when they’re in college works out, they already have that background; they already know what they’re gonna do with it.”
The competition includes three rounds of judging, feedback, and refinement by the teams, and more than 70 local entrepreneurs volunteer as judges and/or mentors. The judges evaluate teams based upon the problem identified, the solution, validation of those two items, market size, customer segments, implementation plan, financials, viability, and marketing strategy.
“The competition is challenging and requires a lot of work, preparation, and learning from the students, but that’s what business is all about.”
Modlich has seen vast improvements in the number and quality of undergraduate concepts since she arrived in 2006, when she used to receive business plans like Kegs Delivered, a house-party beer-delivery service run by two guys with a pickup truck. “It’s always been ticking up every year a little, but last year was a huge, huge difference,” she said about the number of undergraduate submissions. “I think that age group is really becoming more and more interested in entrepreneurship.”
The winners and finalists aren’t household names just yet, but here are three previous finalists to keep an eye on.
Nanofiber Solutions Open track, 1st Place, 2009
A perfect example of the Center’s cross-disciplinary approach, Nanofiber Solutions traces its roots to CEO Ross Kayuha serving as a mentor to one of Camp’s technology and entrepreneurship classes. Jed Johnson, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering (he’s since earned his Ph.D.), was in the class, and the two eventually teamed up with Johnson’s advisor Dr. John Lannutti to enter the BPC. They sought to commercialize 3-D cell-culture plates that Johnson and Lannutti were making with revolutionary nanofiber technology.
“Jed was working with cancer researchers to create scaffolds that mimic physical structures found in the body,” Kayuha said. “By creating these structures and placing them on cell-culture plates, the cancer researchers now had a realistic platform to conduct tests – outside the body.” The BPC forced them to analyze competitors, intellectual property issues, and distribution networks, and since the competition ended, they’ve pioneered artificial tracheal implants and are helping to create an artificial intestine.
Stacker Undergraduate track, 2nd Place, 2014
Rosemary Garry came into the competition as a decided underdog because she was a freshman, but she also had two advantages: she’d already conceived her idea, and there was no pressure on her. “My view is that putting yourself out there so young is the best time to do it,” she said. “We have nothing to lose. Nothing.”
Her idea was to create a mobile application that would aggregate and compare users’ virtual calendars – essentially “stacking” them to find open slots for available meeting times. After finishing second in the Fall IdeaPitch Competition from OSU’s Business Builders Club, she signed up for the BPC and eventually added teammate Mike Letscher from the College of Engineering. Thanks to feedback from the judges, the two adjusted their target from college students to business professionals, and Stacker was selected as a project for the capstone engineering course – she now has a team of students developing her app for free. She said that the BPC transformed Stacker from a cool idea to a legitimate business.
Juiceboxx Undergraduate track, 1st Place, 2014
The fourth and final MacBook charger Lucas Williamson broke was Scott Sherpenberg’s, and it was the last straw. The two industrial design students decided to invent a solution to stop the cords from fraying and failing, eventually creating the concept for Juiceboxx, a sleek case that snaps over the charger to prevent the cord from bending at sharp angles. They entered the IdeaPitch Competition and took first place, besting Stacker, which they would also edge in the BPC.
Using the $1,500 IdeaPitch first prize, they launched the Juiceboxx company and submitted for the BPC, during which they added teammates Andrew Lien and Samuel Silverman. Though they already had the beginnings of a product and a business, the competition forced them to accelerate their progress with multiple deadlines and milestones, and networking with local entrepreneurs provided them access to invaluable mentoring advice. “The $5,000 and pro bono work we received from winning was just an added bonus to the overall experience and opportunity to grow both personally and professionally,” Williamson said. “The competition is challenging and requires a lot of work, preparation, and learning from the students, but that’s what business is all about.”
This year’s Business Plan Competition kicked off on September 24, and it will run until April 1. For more information about the BPC or the Center for Entrepreneurship, visit fisher.osu.edu/centers/entrepreneurship.