Venture Labs Competition Proves Entrepreneurship Isn’t “Moot” on Campus

“Everyone knows that if you got into this competition you’ve got some legitimacy.”

TNG Pharmaceuticals from The University of Louisville
Winners TNG Pharmaceuticals with Venture Labs Director Rob Adams

Global Venture Labs Investment Competition (formerly Moot Corp) began on May4 with a lead-in by innovation guru Bob Metcalfe. He related an encounter during his first week at The University of Texas at Austin with Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell.

“Michael attended UT but did not graduate before founding his company, and I asked him, ‘Did you enter into any student business competitions while you were here,’ and he replied, ‘No, but I wish I had.’ So…that is confusing data.”

Metcalfe addressed the irony of having an organized university competition based on something as seemingly unbounded as the entrepreneurial process.

“I’m convinced you can teach students how to start a company,” he concluded. “The innovation environment at the university includes research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners and early adopters. I would actually like to see more professors launching startups, and perhaps I’ll work on that.”

Bursting the membrane

The 40+ teams assembled at the competition represented universities around the world, most of which have programs dedicated to fostering student entrepreneurship, innovation and technology commercialization.

Still, there are barriers that can make university entrepreneurship a process of fits and starts.

Isaac Barchas, director of the Austin Technology Incubator at UT, knows first-hand the practical difficulties of launching startups from within an academic environment. “Universities contain much of the resources necessary to incubate businesses,” he explained. “But the membrane between the community and the university is often not porous enough to allow collaboration.”

Richard Miller at Venture Expo
Richard Miller, Chief Commercialization Officer at UT Austin

Better capturing the potential of on-campus inventions is one way to pierce that membrane. Richard Miller, who last year was named the chief commercialization officer at the university, told the assembled students and faculty advisors that 2011 was going to be “our biggest year ever, with $26.7 million a year in revenue from licensing and royalty.”

That progress is coming despite his office’s goal of reducing the number of patents for which the university applies. Miller said they are trying to identify real winners, and then is putting the resources behind them. He revealed that his office had recently formed a company to develop and market Graphea, a Graphene technology designed for high strength and high conductivity applications. Miller is the acting CEO.

All about visibility and networking

The student teams gathering at the Venture Labs Investment Competition have earned their place by winning previous business competitions or by receiving special invitations based on the viability of their business plan.

“This competition is the biggest,” explained Brad Cahoon who represented the Kalood company from Brigham Young University. “It has more notoriety, everyone knows that if you got into this competition you’ve got some legitimacy.”

Gaining exposure to potential investors and corporate partners is purpose one. Morten Stensli, in Austin to pitch The MOSE, an oil-spill cleanup tool, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said that the competition lends much needed visibility as they seek investment partners.

“The American market is huge, and we’d really like to sell some of our product here, so if it is Norwegian money or American money, it’s all the same,” he said with a grin.

No longer a class project

There is no doubt that the business ventures being pitched at this competition are not “moot,” but are legitimate enterprises, many of which are already in operation in test markets. Rene J.R. Fernandes, faculty advisor of the Janus team from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and Fundacao Getulio in Brazil, said of his team, “These guys are really going for the business, and they are here to build their network, improve their business plan and push the business forward.”

TNG Pharmaceuticals from the University of Louisville walked away with the grand prize on Saturday evening, but the mood was upbeat across the crowd of participants, despite the adrenaline rush of the previous days. This was but one pause along a long pathway of business development for these entrepreneurs, most of whom are working not for a company, but for a dream.

Virachai Chusakulporn, director of marketing and sales for XZell Laboratory from Thammasat University in Thailand, expressed his team’s determination to bring their life-saving dengue fever test kit to market.

“We really believe in ourselves, and we’ve definitely gained something from this competition. Our team has been together for two years, we know how each other think, and we’re determined to get this product in the market within two years, saving the lives of thousands of people.”

For a taste of the focused determination and human drama found among these determined young entrepreneurs, read From Hooters to Homelessness to Startup by Ben Dyer on TechDrawl.

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