UCSD's Next Top Business Model

    Prospective Competitors gather at the UC San Diego Entrepreneur Challenges’ Fall Kickoff to get information about the year-long competition and mingle with other potential participants. (Courtesy of Dany Kitishian)

    Planning a start-up company is already a hefty task, but factor in essays that need to be written and midterms that need to be studied for, and the task becomes almost impossible for an active student. However, this isn’t stopping the expected 60 to 70 teams participating in the 2008-09 UC San Diego Entrepreneur Challenge.

    In its third year, the student-run competition brings undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral trainees together to pit their business ideas against one another. Over $55,000 in prizes were doled out last year, and this year’s grand prize will be announced at the Winter Kickoff Event.

    The yearlong competition is comprised of three separate contests: the Fall Quarter Business Concept Competition, the Winter Quarter Executive Summary Competition and the Spring Quarter Business Plan Presentation Competition. Each contest runs one quarter, with monetary prizes awarded to the top team.

    “The contests are all independent of each other,” Challenge CEO and Rady MBA student Dany Kitishian said. “By the time you’ve gone through the first competition, you have received enough feedback so that you may improve upon the idea for the next two competitions. It’s important to compete in the first two so that you may receive this valuable feedback before the final competition.”

    The panel of judges — all angel investors, business venture capitalists and legal and business professionals from San Diego — ranks competitors through five separate “tracks,” or business fields. These newly implemented tracks include biotech/life science, clean tech/sustainability, high tech/IT, social entrepreneur and undergraduate students.

    “[Having tracks] levels the playing field,” Kitishian said. “Before the tracks, the judges would complain that they couldn’t figure out who was the best because the two companies were in completely different fields. It also helps our undergraduate students, who may be uncertain of entering their ideas along with graduate students with more experience.”

    Challenge organizers have come up with several ways to assist participants who are unsure about their ideas. Along with helping to diversify their talent pool and access online resources, the organizers put on several educational workshops and social events throughout the quarter. These events allow participants a chance to learn from and network with UCSD professors, business venture capitalists and other professionals.

    “It’s really a lot of exposure and safe environment in which to try out your ideas and to learn to go through that valley of death, from university-based innovation to an actual company with five or so clients,” said UCSD medical postdoctoral fellow Ned Sahin, a second-time participant and one of the challenge’s organizers. “Through events, you have contact with venture capitalists and mentors, who are CEOs of companies. Last year they also gave away free one-on-one time with patent lawyers. Normally you’d be paying hundreds per hour.”

    In addition to the social events, challenge organizers assign each team a mentor, who may be a successful business entrepreneur, lawyer, accountant or other business professional. These mentors spend a minimum of one to two hours of one-on-one consultation with a selected team each week to help ideas progress.

    “With mentors, we get professionals we’d like to see come to the organization, who we think participants would like to work with,” Kitishian said. “The great thing is that the organizers are students also. We know what you’re looking for. When people say they want to see the CEO of Invitrogen, we go out and get them. We try to get everybody involved.”

    With all these resources, Thurgood Marshall College senior Robert van Nice agrees that the competition is an invaluable stepping stone for those who want to become entrepreneurs. He plans to enter the competition for the first time this year within the clean-tech track.

    “You’re not competing with actual business plans,” Nice said. “It’s a competition for just ideas. Whereas, in the entrepreneurial sector, you never know if you’re getting the real story because people are waiting for their patents to go through before they can talk about it. Here, you can let everything out in the open. This gives us a chance to really get our name out there and start networking with the right people. And, so someday, our ideas might change the world.”

    However, the competition is not merely a hypothetical situation for some participants. NeuroVigil, a recent start-up company designed to help people with sleep apnea, not only won last year’s challenge, but also the Bay Area’s prestigious Draper Fisher Jurveston Competition. NeuroVigil, headed by UCSD Salk Institute graduate Philip Low, is now opening an office in La Jolla.

    After participating in the contest last year, Sahin founded BodySure, a company that uses new technology to detect skin cancer in its early stages in a low-cost and more convenient manner. Additionally, he has founded a company in Delaware.

    “I founded two companies that are registered; they’re real corporations,” Sahin said. “I have applied for and begun the process of applying for government grants and discussed the idea with venture capitalists and angel investors. That being said, none of them is running them in the marketplace yet. In a year, I plan to mature one of them.”

    However, the point of the competition is not to receive money or start a business, according to Kitishian. The contest is to give students an idea of what it takes to become an entrepreneur, even if it means messing up.

    “If we can get you to fall a couple times while you’re here at school, by the time you’re starting your own company, you’ll be okay,” Kitishian said. “You have to go through this process at least once or twice. You have to have perseverance.”

    The deadline for the Fall Quarter Business Concept Competition is Dec. 1. To enter or find more information about the UCSD Entrepreneur Challenge, visit www.challenge.ucsd.edu.

    Businessmen, previous competitors and event organizers gather on stage for a group shot at the info session. (Courtesy of Dany Kitishian)
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