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SPIE Professional July 2006

Healthy Competition

Students can cultivate creativity, commercialize a product idea, and learn essential leadership skills through entrepreneurial competitions.

By Jessica Locken

Scientists and engineers with entrepreneurship skills are great assets to companies. "Companies that aren't filled with entrepreneurs today won't be around 50 years from now," says Steven Nichols, associate vice president for research and advisor to the Idea to Product (I2P) competition at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
Needing business-savvy employees, interviewers frequently ask candidates to speak to their entrepreneurial qualifications. Honing your entrepreneurial abilities now will give you an important edge on your competition, especially if you are new to the job market.
But you don't have to enroll in an MBA program to become a keen entrepreneur. Instead, you can participate in one of the many entrepreneurial competitions held around the world. You'll learn valuable skills as you turn an idea into a marketable product or service. In addition, winners receive cash prizes to help finance the development and marketing of their ideas.
A Different Kind of Competition
If you have little or no formal entrepreneurial training, it is best to begin with a competition focused on education, like the Instituto Tecnólogico de Monterrey's Muestra Emprendedora.

Winners of the 2006 Idea to Product Competition with Steven Nichols (right) in Austin, TX.
Students at the institute begin by taking a required course in entrepreneurial development. After this course, they participate in Muestra Emprendedora, a fair designed to showcase innovative ideas. "At the fair, a committee chooses the best ideas based on their originality, feasibility, and the quality of their business plan," says Carlos López Mariscal, a former participant and doctoral student studying optics at the institute.
After the competition, students understand tangible factors for success, like local markets and infrastructure, as well as intangible factors, like culture and communication. Mariscal reflects, "At Muestra Emprendedora, I learned that even the most simplistic systems have a long way to go before being fool-proof and marketable."
Many students enter this competition multiple years in a row and some even receive credit to conduct research overseas. Past winners have received attention from international organizations like the United Nations. This publicity is essential for these young businesses and technologies to secure funding.
To prepare their students to succeed in the working world, the University of Texas at Austin competition offers another innovative model: providing funds for new companies and teaching students to be successful entrepreneurs.
"The main skills that are derived through technology innovation are creativity and leadership. But most engineering and science courses don't develop these skills in students, and these are the skills that students most desperately need," Nichols says.
In the first phase of I2P, participants develop a technology and identify a corresponding market. Past entries have included advancements in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, communications, and electromechanics. Some teams present original ideas developed while working on their degrees. Other teams choose to reapply and combine products or services already available but in need of improvement.
Working with successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists, and technology experts, semifinalists refine their products and develop a timeline for implementing a product prototype. The finalists then deliver 10-minute business presentations to a panel of established local and international entrepreneurs who serve as competition judges.
The judges evaluate entries on market need, market opportunity, novelty, and innovation. Winning teams receive up to $9,000 in cash prizes. Many teams from I2P have secured commercial licenses and formed new businesses. And, as a direct result of I2P, the University of Texas has received more than $1 million in research funding.
"Our program encourages students to work in interdisciplinary teams to identify and develop new technologies and to match those technologies to perceived social needs," explains Nichols. "Because students work with those from other disciplines, it broadens their education and gives them a much better understanding of the skills that other disciplines bring to the table."
One Team's Success Story
Two former UT graduate students, Scott Evans and Donnie Vanelli, formed a partnership at Austin's I2P that has lead to a burgeoning new business. By combining Evan's talents in electrical engineering and Vanelli's abilities as a mechanical engineer, they won $5,000 in prize money for their 3-D printing technology for silicon carbide parts. Vanelli and Evans also received additional funding from investors they met at I2P.
With the skills and financial support they received through I2P, Evans and Vanelli were able to launch Advanced Laser Materials Inc. They then licensed their technology and secured a grant for future research.
"I2P led me to the next stage of my education in entrepreneurship," says Evans. After Evans graduated in 2005, he became the director of I2P and a lead researcher at UT Austin. "I also have gone on to consult for startups and to teach a graduate course in technology commercialization," Evans says. Vanelli currently runs their company.
I2P Goes Globetrotting
Inspired by Austin's I2P model, many universitiesincluding Trinity College Dublin, National University of Singapore, Imperial College London, and Tsinghua University in Chinahave started their own local I2P competitions.
I2P International, an invitation-only competition, selects its teams from student entrepreneurs around the world, including the winners of local I2P competitions. "Last fall the international competition had representatives from 50 universities across five continents," says Nichols who also advises I2P International. "It's an interesting time for students to meet and compete against students from significantly different backgrounds."
I2P International offers $26,000 to winners and invitations to Global Moot-Corp, a prestigious business plan competition that awards $100,000 each year.
You also might consider joining an interdisciplinary business plan competition like the University of Chicago's New Venture Challenge (NVC). Similar to I2P, the objective of NVC "is to build a business plan around a product or service idea, vet the plan through a series of faculty panels and actual investor panels, and eventually provide seed funding for the best projects," says Leo Irakliotis, associate chair of the Computer Science Department and director of the Computer Science Professional Programs.
And, unlike most business plan competitions that host day-long or weekend-long competitions, NVC is an interactive process that spans the academic year, including a course in entrepreneurial development. Over a period of nine months, students test out their ideas as they attend workshops and develop long-term mentor relationships.
"We emphasize how important networking and team management are not just in startups, but in almost any business venture," saysEllen Rudnick,executive director of the University of Chicago's Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship.
"Many of our teams include students and faculty from other local universities, alumni, experts, and advisors from the business world," says Rudnick.
As a direct result of NVC, students have received more than $50 million in funding and secured patents. Many NVC participants have started successful new businesses, including:
  • Sarvega, a high-tech infrastructure company that Intel bought last year;
  • Medspeed, a medical laboratory logistical service;
  • Noon Solar, a company that makes messenger bags and purses with solar panels that can recharge cell phones, PDAs, and other electronics; and
  • Sun Phocus, winner of the 2006 MBA Jungle Competition for their electricity generating solar windows.
  • Each year NVC judges award $50,000 in cash prizes.
    How to Get Involved
    Though distance may prevent you from participating in Muestra Emprendedora, I2P, or NVC, many universities around the world invite science and engineering students to enter their entrepreneurial competitions. And with the growing number of interdisciplinary competitions, it is likely that you can find one close to home.
    If there isn't already an entrepreneurial competition at your school, consider beginning your own. With permission from the organizers of I2P, you can use their training materials, and UT faculty will even host workshops to make your local I2P a success. More information about I2P can be found at ideatoproduct.org. If you decide you want to begin your own branch, contact Steven Nichols at s.nichols@mail.utexas.edu or Scott Evans at rsevans@mail.utexas.edu.

    I2P Winners Focus on Cancer Detection
    "In the Idea to Product competition, we learned to think like entrepreneurs," says Mehul Sampat, an SPIE member studying biomedical engineering at UT Austin. Together, husband-and-wife team Mehul and Pallavi Sampat won $5,000 for developing and commercializing a new image-processing algorithm. Designed for computer-aided detection systems (CAD), their algorithm improves radiologists’ ability to detect architectural distortions accurately in mammograms.
    An electrical engineering student, Pallavi Sampat conducted extensive market research for their product. "The workshops that I2P organizers conducted taught us about technology commercialization and what all is involved in the process of protecting intellectual property," Mehul Sampat explains. "We explored the commercial world to discover the need and the market potential of our product. Discussions with our mentor helped us to distinguish between our primary customers (makers of CAD systems) and the end users (women who had a mammogram screening conducted)."
    By participating in I2P, the Sampats learned how to make their innovative technology market-ready. Currently, they are collaborating with radiologists at the MD Anderson Cancer Research Center to further develop their algorithm.

    Jessica Locken, SPIE Staff Writer 

    DOI: 10.1117/2.4200607.16