At the 2018 Business Plan Competition final—University of Washington’s entrepreneurial answer to the March Madness basketball tournament—guest judges and coaches from Xinova walked away as impressed by students’ technologies as their business chops. As UW continues to nurture the interface between science and business departments, the future of innovation looks bright.
“Many Xinova innovators have shared that there is a lack of degrees and academic paths geared for innovation,” said Brad Roberts, Global Head of Growth and Scale at Xinova. “Events like the Business Plan Competition are an important step in that direction. We are looking forward to implementing a Xinova credential program that you can take with you into any future conversation regarding innovation. We’re not going to disrupt the UW’s academic programs in this respsect, and as a UW engineer myself, I find it deeply rewarding to support programs that guide and motivate the next generation of innovators.”
Representing the gamut of departments across UW’s state-wide campuses, a Sweet 16 of student business teams competed on Thursday, May 24 out of an original field of 86 teams. The $25,000 Herbert B. Jones Foundation Grand Prize went to A-Alpha Bio, who also received the $2,500 Xinova “Best Idea for the Future” Prize, which highlights a “venture that has a long horizon but will be worth the wait.”
A-Alpha Bio, which will move into its own lab this summer, helps make drugs safer and bring them to market quicker and cheaper via thorough pre-clinical drug screening that enables testing for thousands of side effects simultaneously.
“What really stood out to me was these weren’t ideas, these were real companies,” said Travis Murdock, VP of Marketing at Xinova. “Several of the teams I spoke with were already funding their businesses, and one was funding their business by winning business plan competitions.”
Xinovians Matt Ferguson and Shivani Ludwig, who both obtained their PhDs from UW, helped coach the preceding round of 36 teams and were impressed by how some teams took feedback and improved their presentations from round to round. Dr. Ferguson was also impressed at how many groups were legitimately growing their businesses with funding and IP licensing activities. Himself a finalist at the BPC, Dr. Ferguson noted that while the top level of competing teams has always been deeply talented, the base level of competition appears to be improving year over year.
“The guys who won this year were way better than I was,” said Dr. Ferguson with a laugh, adding: “I wasn’t surprised by the winner at all. They’re pretty much ready to go. I think they could get a good valuation right now. I think the rest of the top four all seemed good as well. Others were also deserving of that top spot. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of all the teams.”
Not winning might have been a blessing in disguise, especially for inexperienced teams. Murdock coached a team whose technology he believes is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But the team fell short, he said, because they were overly confident their technology would win on its own merits, and thus they did not hone their message and presentation to the same level as their excellent competition, many of whom had been submitting the same ideas year over year, obviously committed to improving their message.
“They needed to lose to learn that there’s more to it than the technology,” said Murdock.
“So much of the Business Plan Competition, especially for more technical students, is about learning that lesson, that nobody wants to hear only about the technology,” concurred Dr. Ferguson, noting how students from teams like A-Alpha Bio exhibited the poise and maturity desired by investors. “They want to hear why you are committed to it and why that works, as a story. If you can convince us of those elements, then we can get further into the technology.”
Both teams Dr. Ludwig coached focused on their messaging, and both advanced to the Final Four. She found the sheer diversity of the technologies noteworthy, ranging from pharmaceutical industry technology to gaming fashion to agriculture. Moreover, there was a nice mix of backgrounds represented in the competition, and presentation duties appeared evenly split between the business students and the science and engineering students.
“It helps these teams to get all kinds of advice from different judges depending on what stage their company is at,” Dr. Ludwig said, adding that coaches for the Sweet 16 focused primarily on messaging.
Each round of the competition entails its own valuable experience. Along with several other leading figures in the Seattle startup scene, Xinova staff have participated as guest judges and coaches throughout the events leading up to the May 24 BPC.
Dr. Ferguson credits his own experience in the BPC as a turning point in his career.
“I told some of the students that competing in the Business Plan Competition was one of the most useful, one of the best learning experiences I had in all of graduate school. I learned more from that competition than from anything else.”
*Images sourced from UW’s Foster School of Business
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