PhillyInc: Students match wits in business-plan competitions

Vikram Bellapravalu's push-ups won the People's Choice Award for Pledge4Good L.L.C. He told the crowd that his friends had pledged $4 for each push-up.
Vikram Bellapravalu's push-ups won the People's Choice Award for Pledge4Good L.L.C. He told the crowd that his friends had pledged $4 for each push-up.
Posted: May 02, 2011

Let me confess up front that the 13th Wharton Business Plan Competition had me squirming at times as the business students gave their pitches.

Flipables wants to sell low-cost, disposable flip-flops to gyms to help reduce the chances of picking up foot fungus, athlete's foot, or worse from the shower floor.

Cyrano Nasal Sciences L.L.C. views shots of botulinum toxin in a patient's nasal passages as a once-a-season treatment for allergies.

And Boss Medical has designed a medical device for surgeons to better "harvest" bone graft material from a patient's pelvis for use in spinal-fusion surgery.

Ew, ow, and owwwww.

But I also have to applaud the innovation and sophistication displayed by them and the five other finalists who stood before four judges and dozens of their peers in Huntsman Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus last Wednesday.

What I saw on display for a few hours had taken months to prepare. Open to any Penn student, the competition began last October with 300 teams, each with a business concept. By the time the 25 semifinalists were chosen in March, each team had written a full business plan.

Eight were selected for the finals, requiring them to make a 10-minute presentation and field questions for 10 more minutes from the investment professionals serving as judges, including P. Sherrill Neff, managing partner of Quaker BioVentures Inc., a Philadelphia venture fund.

College business plan competitions seem to get bigger and richer every year. At stake in the 2011 Wharton competition were $116,000 in cash prizes and awards of "in-kind services," including a $30,000 grand prize.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, which will hold its finals May 11, is prepared to hand out $300,000 in prize money. The overall winner will get $100,000.

And the Rice University Business Plan Competition, which calls itself the world's richest business plan competition, attracts entries from college teams across the nation. This year's winning team, TNG Pharmaceuticals, went home to the University of Louisville with an eye-popping $642,000 in prizes.

Locally, Temple University's Fox School of Business held its 13th Be Your Own Boss Bowl last Wednesday, awarding its grand prize to pureNano Technologies, which seeks to produce ultrapure carbon nanotubes for use in a variety of industries. In all, pureNano received $125,000 in cash, prizes, and services.

Back at the Wharton School, while the four judges engaged in their deliberations, each student team got a chance to win the hearts and minds (and $3,000 in cash) from the audience with brief elevator pitches.

Flipables founder Lee Bienstock - who had competed in Season Five of The Apprentice, the reality show hosted by Donald Trump - held his biodegradable flip-flops and exhorted his fellow students to "stop the spread of fungus."

Vikram Bellapravalu, the team leader for Pledge4Good L.L.C., found a memorable way to demonstrate how the fund-raising platform for nonprofit groups works. After telling the crowd that his friends had pledged $4 for each push-up that he could do, the Wharton graduate student ripped off his shirt and did nine push-ups, thus raising $36 for a "great organization," Bellapravalu said, a bit winded.

It worked. Pledge4Good won the People's Choice Award, which prompted the team leader to vow "no more push-ups."

Unswayed by feats of athleticism, the judges chose as the $30,000 grand-prize winner Stylitics, a company that promises to help clothing-makers better understand what customers wear and why.

Team leader Rohan Deuskar said Stylitics hopes to become the "Nielsen for clothing," referring to the company best-known for its television-ratings system. Using incentives, such as gift cards with major fashion brands, Deuskar said that Stylitics would ask consumers to share what's in their closet using a social-networking site.

For example, users would list what clothing they own, how they wear it, what they like, and what they don't. Deuskar said such information would help apparel-makers better recognize and adapt to shifts in what brand-conscious consumers are actually wearing or foreswearing.

In second place was Next Generation Phlebotomy, which has designed a medical device to reduce the number of times hospital patients get stuck with a needle to draw blood for lab tests.

Pitou Devgon, one of the three graduate students behind the company, is a Penn-trained physician. No celebrating the $15,000 prize for him that night; he still faced a 12-hour shift in the intensive-care unit at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

The $10,000 third prize went to Baby.com.br, which is building an e-commerce site focused on mothers in Brazil - similar to Diapers.com, which also emerged from Penn several years ago. Don't cry for Baby.com.br, however. The company recently raised $4.3 million in its first venture round, led by Brazilian investors.

Baby.com also entered the Harvard Business School's annual Business Plan Contest - where Davis Smith's cousin and business partner, Kimball Thomas, is a student - and shared top honors with another finalist in the Wharton competition, Boss Medical. Each received $25,000 in cash.


Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com. See his blog at www.phillyinc.biz 

 

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