Student entrepreneurs dazzle at UW business plan competition

Sometimes failure is an option. In fact, it can be pretty lucrative if you respond to it in the right way.

At least that’s what John Surdyk, the energetic director of the UW-Madison’s G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, will tell you.

Surdyk saw it firsthand several years ago when Matt Howard, one of the wunderkinds behind Madison’s surging online food ordering business EatStreet, entered the Burrill competition with his business partners.

“It makes for a tremendous event when we can bring all those students together, literally from astrophysics to zoology this year, in one event.” — John Surdyk, director, G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition

“This year, it was funny for me, because Matt Howard was one of our judges, and he’d entered the business plan competition several years ago,” said Surdyk, “and he already had the company up and running, and they didn’t win anything. And they came back after having learned a lot and said, ‘We had no plan; we have one now.’

“They took time to talk to John Neis at Venture Investors and developed a really compelling plan that laid the foundation for the development and growth of EatStreet, and they won that year.”

The rest is (very recent) history.

In April, EatStreet closed on $6 million in series B funding, which followed a $2.5 million infusion the previous year. Meanwhile, the company keeps growing, with 5,000 affiliated restaurants at last count, and a goal of 15,000 by the end of 2014.

For his part, Surdyk seems both proud of and humbled by the success of businesses, like EatStreet, that used the Burrill Business Plan Competition as a launching pad.

“So some of our alumni are clearly doing really well,” said Surdyk. “I’m glad to see that we maybe gave them the right kind of learning environment where they could maybe test their ideas and refine them and lay the foundation for success, and pursue their ideas further.”

In living color

Of course, the Burrill Business Plan Competition, which was held on May 2 at Grainger Hall on the UW-Madison campus, is at least as much about guiding up-and-coming entrepreneurs through the startup gauntlet as it is about giving them an opportunity to show what they know.

This year’s first-place winners were Cedric Kovacs-Johnson, Chase Haider, and Taylor Fahey, UW engineering students who developed Spectrom, a coloring device that can be used with 3-D printers.

Given the growth potential of 3-D printers, we could have another EatStreet on our hands.

“It’s so rare that you see a technology that’s so poised to change the world, and I know it sounds a little corny, but I really do think that 3-D printing is going to be that technology for the next 10 years as we see evolutions in its capabilities,” said Kovacs-Johnson. “I think … democratizing manufacturing is what 3-D printing is going to do, and we hope to add something significant to that, which is color.”

In taking home top honors, the three entrepreneurs received a $12,000 cash prize and space at the University Research Park. Kovacs-Johnson says the money will help the team prepare for initial production, while the research space will allow them to collaborate, hold meetings, and maybe find future partners or investors. They also plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign in about six months to help bootstrap the product and “get it out the door quicker to people who really, really want it first.”

But beyond the cash and the new workspace, Kovacs-Johnson says the experience itself has been invaluable. This is actually the third UW contest the trio has won — the Schoofs Prize for Creativity and the Tong Prototype Prize were the others — but the Burrill competition has helped the engineering students build a solid business foundation to support their innovative technology.

“[The university and its faculty] have challenged what we can do, and when we won the first competition in the College of Engineering for prototyping and creativity, we thought we had made it, we thought that was the big leagues,” said Kovacs-Johnson, “and then we were challenged in a completely new way in this business plan competition. And I’m not saying this is going to fail, I think it’s going to succeed very well, but even if it were to fail, I learned so much in this process that I will take with me for the rest of my life.”

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For his part, Surdyk has been witness to tremendous growth in the competition itself, not just in its participants’ ventures. In 2007, he said, the competition drew 10 teams and had three judges. This year, 35 teams’ business plans were reviewed by around 35 judges, including alumni, entrepreneurs, faculty, and other professionals.

“We have an amazing constellation of reviewers that span from New York to San Francisco, as well as local talent here all working together to support our students,” said Surdyk.

Meanwhile, along with the growth of the competition, Surdyk has noticed something else: Today’s students seem to be quite a bit savvier about the business world as a whole.

“I feel like a lot of students are coming in and they may already be entrepreneurs, and they’re trying to learn the value of planning, and that is radically different [than in 2007],” said Surdyk. “We’re serving more students from more places, but many of them have gotten much further along than what we were seeing even six or seven years ago, and that has definitely changed the dynamics a bit.

“One student, I was listening to his conversation, and he was closing beyond $50,000 of financing,” said Surdyk, laughing. “And another one, I had to go get him a conference room because he was going to have a call at 2 p.m. for an investment, and these were students that didn’t even advance to my finals. You’ve got to be kidding me! This is a lot different than what I recall several years ago. It’s a whole different landscape.”

According to Surdyk, it’s also a more diverse one.

“It makes for a tremendous event when we can bring all those students together, literally from astrophysics to zoology this year, in one event,” said Surdyk.

The 2014 winners:

First place: Spectrom

Second place: SELA (innovative technologies for developing medical techniques)

Third place: Coride (mobile/Web app that connects drivers and passengers for intercity travel)

Fourth place: AppSolute Innovations, Inc. (mobile event coordination app)

Five other teams were named runners-up: Sensori, Tod’s Cocktail Mix, WOOF Supplies, Zuntik, and MicroViolet Patch.

For more information on the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, click here.

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