The Investment Round of the annual University of Washington Business Plan Competition is like opening day of the baseball season. Anything seems possible for the 36 student teams pitching feverish woo to the 300+ roving judges who will decide who advances to the Sweet 16.
Those judges have a difficult job.
But for those of us blissfully unburdened by the business of assessing venture viability, appraising market opportunity and adjudging founding team fitness, just taking it all in is a simple pleasure.
In this 20th edition of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s marquee competition, the UW HUB ballroom strikes a familiar vibe that’s somewhere between trade show and carnival midway.
A parade of placard-bearers begs your attention to their company displays, where teammates hawk plans and prototypes, services and solutions, gadgets and gear. It’s as pure a display of the entrepreneurial spirit as you’re likely to find anywhere.
From the display of NASTEA & Co., Minnie Yuan beckons like a smiling siren, tempting a sample of her startup’s bottled “dirty chai,” a smooth and pleasantly piquant elixir of white coffee and chai spices that delivers the jolt of caffeine without any of the jitters. Or, so swears Yuan, an Arts & Sciences student enrolled in Foster’s Entrepreneurship Minor.
“I’m officially addicted to our product!” she proclaims.
There’s a lot of that going around.
The team from Uplifted Supply Co. presents, with a curious cocktail of chill and intensity, their elegantly appointed gift box of “accessories” for use in the enjoyment of legally acquired marijuana (the stuff that used to be called “paraphernalia” that was best procured from a “head shop”).
Among the brightly colored mosaic of branded company t-shirts, the basic black tops worn by The Security of Things team might be the most effective at marketing their device security automation service with distinct, geek-chic catchphrases such as “Your password is so bad grandma could hack it,” “My password is longer than yours,” and “Don’t be default.”
The women of Hoja Nueva push samples of fine local chocolate sourced from their ethical and sustainable network of cacao farmers in the fragile rainforests of Peru—an ecosystem of growers that is already working to fill an order from four Northwest boutique chocolatiers for 20 tons of beans.
Foster undergrad Marcus Burcher has big plans for Bonzeeball, the childhood game he invented with neighborhood friends. As a novel entry in the physical gaming world, it may not quite be Quidditch. But who knows? This frenetic mashup of ping-pong, baseball, handball and lacrosse, demonstrated in a looping video, might just be the next craze to sweep the backyards and beaches of America.
And then there is that brave, wilted soul promoting the remote medical service of Discovery Health by trolling the crowd in a bright red survival suit of the sort you might find bobbing in the Bering Sea.
Flashes of genius
Presentation is paramount in the Investment Round where first impressions are the only impressions. The exhibits bear a certain sophistication. Professionally designed branding and packaging suggests that these are real businesses, not simply student pipedreams.
But what sparks the imagination most of all is the sheer array of brilliant ideas on display. Take a look in any direction.
Epi For All, champion of this year’s Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge, has invented an inexpensive reusable epinephrine auto-injector used for emergency treatment of severe allergies.
Nova Solar Glazing, winner of this year’s Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge, has developed an invisible window treatment that captures energy from the sun and converts it directly into the home’s electrical grid.
Goodwill Hunting delivers custom-branded apparel for school, sports, work or other organizations that is screen-printed or embroidered on eclectic sets of garments sourced from Goodwill Industries.
Upshot Nutrition is building an app that reports the full nutritional profile of whole and processed foods at the click of a smartphone camera.
Airy has invented a wireless and battery-less home security sensor that draws power from the movement of the cabinets, drawers, windows or doors that it monitors.
Lingnin Biojet is converting a byproduct of the paper industry into a renewable alternative to conventional jet fuel.
Abilitrek is the world’s first travel booking site to rate accommodations and attractions on accessibility for travelers with disabilities.
Membrion has converted technology from the food packaging industry into inexpensive and effective membranes for water filtration, alternative energy and advanced batteries.
SwarmFX is deploying a fleet of drones as a safer and more effective means of surveilling and fighting wildfires.
ShopSight uses RFID technology to generate an online-level of customer data by tracking the in-store shopping experience.
PlayGait has developed a flexible “exoskeleton” brace that allows kids with neuromuscular disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, to practice walking outside of therapy sessions
Daso Soccer Smart Wall is a multi-sensored backstop delivering data points on accuracy and power for future Clint Dempseys and Alex Morgans.
LC-Tourniquet is a refrigerated leg wrap that slows the decay caused by a bleeding wound or blood clot, preventing the need for amputation.
And then there is IssueCounsel, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to aggregate the world’s existing arguments and quotes into a simple pro/con visual framework that supports public affairs, public relations, lobbying and litigation. Oh, and maybe politics, too.
The astute aggregation of judges will decide this company’s fate in the competition. But to this untrained eye, in these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” it sounds pretty darned smart.
Don’t they all?
The Sweet 16 and Final Round of the UW Business Plan Competition take place May 25.