May the best venture win
New Venture Competition provides student entrepreneurs a chance to network with professionals, turn dreams into reality
For students like Neha Srivastava and her teammates, Friday could be an important day that defines their careers in the field of business.
For the past couple of months, Srivastava has been working alongside Anant Patwa, Neetesh Sahu and Saurabh Ghosh to prepare for the eighth-annual New Venture Competition. The four graduate students from India teamed up to create MEDI-ZEN, a mobile phone app and website to make local health care information more accessible and easy to understand, especially for those who come to the U.S. for school or work.
The four students will be one of 29 teams competing March 24 for more than $77,000 in cash prizes. The money will be awarded during this year’s New Venture, hosted by the College of Business Administration.
Doors of the Education and Human Services Building will open for registration at 8:30 a.m., and the final awards will be handed out by 7:30 p.m. The event is open to the public.
In a “Shark Tank”-style format, the competition will feature teams of student entrepreneurs pitching business ideas in front of a panel of judges and an audience of their peers.
Srivastava and her team are trying to impress the judges and “solve a problem people are facing in today’s world,” Srivastava said. Students and faculty coming to the university from outside of the country can get confused by the system of health care insurance, which is different than what they might have in their home countries. Students at CMU use mandatory insurance from the university, but it’s unclear if insurance coverage will follow students wherever they go.
“If I were to get sick today, I would not know where to go,” Srivastava said.
Ghosh said the goal for the group’s project is to make finding health care that fits within individual insurance plans easier for potential clients.
“We are trying to ease through loopholes that we already see within the (college) health care system, and are trying to make it (easier to navigate) and approachable for the students,” he said.
On Friday, the MEDI-ZEN team's product will be put to the test. They will face off against other students, all vying for the spotlight, the cash and a boost in their business acumen after the competition.
Members of the College of Business Administration have prepared students participating in this year’s New Venture since the start of the Fall 2016 semester. Monthly workshops were hosted by the college, allowing students to work with mentors working in the business field as they perfected their business plan.
Bruce Marble, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Institute at CMU, stressed the importance of pairing the student entrepreneurs with mentors from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. This group of mentors include certified public accountants, attorneys, chief executive officers, marketing and information technology professionals and scientists.
“By having this broad roster of people, what we do is try to provide all kinds of expertise to help the teams,” he said. “You can see the benefit.”
Allen Warren, a member of the team Simpl, believes his team wouldn't have been nearly as successful if it hadn't been for their assigned mentor, Pablo Parraga-Ramirez.
"Pablo has been a huge help in pushing us on both the engineering side and the business side," Warren said. "We've basically had to learn everything on the business side just for this competition. He's really helped us figure out things like markets and revenue models."
Team Simpl also includes seniors Caroline Mitchell, Abdullah Mansouri and Hesham Tanbour. Simpl's product, DosAid, is a new type of medical equipment designed to help nurses crush pills for patients who have trouble taking them orally.
DosAid began as a senior design project for Warren and Mitchell, who are both engineering students. Parraga-Ramirez was the one who convinced the team to take their product through New Venture.
In December, the College of Business Administration hosted “Make-A-Pitch,” a preliminary New Venture event to help students practice pitching ideas to investors.
The event included 26 student teams, many of which are participating in New Venture. The teams delivered two-minute pitches for a judge panel. Make-A-Pitch was structured similarly to New Venture. It was designed to prepare students for what they will face during the actual competition.
Scrappy Technologies, a team consisting of seniors Bryan Caragay and Hailey Polidori, won Make-A-Pitch after presenting their idea for a smartphone app. The duo plans on taking their winning idea to the next stage at New Venture.
Caragay, who has designed apps for more than 10 years, developed the idea for the app known as “Guarded” with the help of Polidori. Guarded operates as a mobile version of the Blue Light Emergency Phones found across campus.
As members of Epsilon Nu Tau, an entrepreneurship-based fraternity on campus, Caragay and Polidori have been involved with setting up on competition day before. They said the fact they do not find out what teams they are facing until the day before the event can be nerve-racking.
Though the team can look back on its Make-A-Pitch victory, the students are aware their past success won’t necessarily bring success during New Venture.
“It’s almost a double-edged sword,” Polidori said. “It gives us the confidence that we need to pitch, but at the same time we know that people are expecting us to do well. We definitely need to bring it on the day of the competition.”
The business partnership between Caragay and Polidori began shortly after the two started dating in the summer after graduating from high school. Caragay and Polidori were originally computer science and psychology majors, respectively, before both "fell in love" with the entrepreneurship program, Polidori said.
The two joined Episilon Nu Tau and volunteered for the New Venture Competiton, which gave them an early preview of the opportunities it could provide.
"When we sat and watched our (fraternity) brothers pitch, and (Caragay) would keep telling me, 'Oh I'm definitely doing this next year,'" Polidori said. "I was sort of hesitant when he first asked me to join his team, but after working with our fraternity, they really motivated us to keep doing it."
With years of programming experience, Caragay started developing the idea that would become Guarded during his sophomore year when Polidori took a night class that required her to walk home after dark during the week.
Caragay was convinced to revisit the old idea for after much coaxing from Polidori.
Regardless of whether they are able to build on its success from Make-A-Pitch, the team will continue to improve its idea after the competition.
"We've already talked to (CMU) about implementing the app around campus," Caragay said. "We're hoping New Venture will be a jump start for us to say, 'Hey, we competed in the competition, it's a valid product,' and hopefully get the university to sign a contract so we can roll (it) out for the next school year."
Judges, faculty, spectators and participants will congregate in the Education and Human Services Building at 8:30 a.m. on March 24 for the start of the competition. After registration closes at 9:30 a.m., a welcoming ceremony will lead into the first round of the competition at 10 a.m.
The day's long schedule means students will have time to network with the visiting judges, said Charles Crespy, dean of the College of Business Administration.
"The list of judges is going to be huge and almost everyone on it is in a position to help students," he said. "That's why the event runs all day long — the students that compete will have (more than) nine or 10 hours to get to know these people."
Three or four student teams will be assigned to a room for individual round of the competition. Each room will have up to four judges in addition to student volunteers to oversee timekeeping and management. Faculty members will also act as moderators.
Each team will have 10 minutes to deliver its pitch to the judges. After the pitch, judges will have 10 minutes to ask questions and give feedback. This will repeat until all 29 teams have pitched.
The second round will end at 2:30 p.m. when the three student teams that will move on to the finals are announced. They are sent off on their own to prepare for the beginning of the final round at 4 p.m.
All teams present who aren’t competing in the finals will participate in an informal two-minute pitch competition.
"We've actually put some special effort into this pitch competition," Marble said. "We've got a few surprises that will be fun an create a little bit of humor as well to break up the 26 pitches that we'll hear."
The final round ends at 5 p.m. and is followed by a change in venue from the EHS Building to McGuirk Arena. Dinner and an awards ceremony will take place until 7:30 p.m.
The “Best Overall Venture Award” is the biggest and most prestigious award, which includes a total cash prize of $30,000. “Best Overall Venture” is given to the team that survives all three rounds.
The investment company Blue Water Angels will also provide the team that wins “Best Overall Venture” with a year's worth of mentoring and advisory support.
More than 70 carefully-chosen judges from around the community comprise the three rounds of the competition. That number includes 14 final-round judges from across the nation, including some of the College of Business Administration’s most senior alumni.
Coming from as far as the Bahamas, Silicon Valley and New York City, the final-round judges include people such as Ken Kousky, president of Blue Water Angels, and John G. Kulhavi, senior vice president for Merrill Lynch in Farmington Hills.
The John G. Kulhavi Events Center on CMU's campus is named after the alumnus.
“It’s a really distinguished group of judges, and it’s really amazing that these people always want to give back and be involved,” Marble said. “We reach out to the ones who have been involved in the past, and we’re always expanding the list.”
Though it’s one of the few large events hosted by the College of Business Administration, New Venture typically isn’t attended by recruiters. Marble’s belief is that the benefits students get from the firsthand experience and the networking is potentially more valuable than most other events and services the College of Business Administration can offer.
Ten out of the 22 teams that participated in last year's competition went on to launch their business afterwards, Marble said. Six of those are actively growing their business and producing revenue.
“We really want to help these students launch their businesses,” he said. “We not only help them learn how to do it, but we can also provide a lot in the way of initial funding.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students to network. There’s so many people here that could hire them in the future. There’s people who could invest in their business, there’s so many people that could get involved. It’s a great networking day.”