With all eyes on Facebook’s IPO, scores of would-be Zuckerbergs tested their own dreams of something big in university entrepreneurship competitions. A look at some of the most promising winners.
Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest
Vaxess Technologies, winner, business venture track
If more vaccines could be kept usable without refrigeration, would more people in developing countries get vaccinated? Probably. That’s the motivating force at Vaxess, which plans to use a protein found in silk, fibroin, to preserve vaccines on a thin film strip so that they don’t require refrigeration.
Most vaccines are unstable, meaning they will degrade and lose their effectiveness unless refrigerated, says Katherine Kosuda, a postdoctoral research fellow in Harvard’s chemistry department and one of the Vaxess’s seven team members. “Ninety-eight percent of them have to be stored between 35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, which poses a pretty big challenge in parts of the world where there isn’t the infrastructure for cold storage,” she said.
Team member Livio Valenti, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, had worked for the United Nations in Cambodia before coming to Harvard. One of his interests was in exploring new export markets for Cambodian silk, which led him to professors at Tufts who had been developing the Vaxess approach to stabilizing vaccines using silk protein. The team is in the midst of negotiating a technology license with Tufts.
Eliminating the need for cold storage would help bring down the cost of vaccinations by simplifying distribution, and could increase access. “Global coverage of vaccines like hepatitis B is about 75 percent, and it has plateaued there,” says Michael Schrader, a Harvard Business School student finishing his studies this spring. “We’ve gotten to those parts of the world that are easily accessible, and the question is, how do you cover the last 25 percent?”
The Vaxess vaccines have yet to be tested in animals. But the team is planning to spend the summer talking to pharmaceutical companies, nonprofits, and government agencies about partnerships — and looking for raise money for its venture.
Harvard College Innovation Challenge
Instiglio, public sector innovation award
States like Massachusetts have already started experimenting with “social impact bonds” — a sophisticated way of saying that they’re structuring agreements with vendors to pay for social services based on whether they achieve results.
For example, a vendor providing counseling and job training might contract to reduce the percentage of former inmates returning to prison. If the vendor meets the goal, it gets paid; if it doesn’t, it loses out on the money.
“These are basically pay-for-success contracts,” says team member Mike Belinsky, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If you don’t have an impact, we’ll pay you zero. The provider of the service is taking on the risk.”
Instiglio, a company founded by four students at the Kennedy School, wants to bring that practice to developing countries, addressing problems such as HIV and AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa or youth violence in Colombia and Mexico. Using the social impact bond approach, African governments might contract with health care providers to educate people about AIDS, the use of condoms, and other ways to prevent the spread of the disease, and tie payments to a decline in infections.
“Paying for anti-retroviral drugs to treat AIDS is a lot more expensive for a government than paying for prevention services,” Belinsky says.
Instiglio wants to advise governments on creating pay-for-success programs, and helping evaluate service providers that want to participate.
The company plans to incorporate initially as a nonprofit, and pursue grant funding, “but we could convert to a for-profit once we have enough contracts,” Belinsky says. The team is taking advantage of free office space this summer at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab in Allston.
Tufts University $100K Business Plan Competition
PriceParrott (formerly PriceTrack), first place
How many items have you perused online, but not made a purchase because the price seemed a little too lofty? Tufts junior Adrienne Dreyfus is developing software to let you specify how much you’d like to pay for a particular product, and get an e-mail alert if the price ever drops to that level. “We’re focusing on apparel for now, and our market is young women,” says Dreyfus, who hopes to launch PriceParrott by the end of the summer.
Dreyfus says she isn’t much of a shopper herself, but that she “noticed my friends talking about how much they strive to only buy things when they’re on sale. Compliment a young woman on her outfit, and it’s usually followed by, ‘Thanks, I got it for this percent off.’”
The idea for PriceParrott was born after an exercise in a programming class required Dreyfus to write software that could go to the Urban Outfitters website and find the price of any item. PriceParrott will initially track price changes in about 100 online stores.
Dreyfus received $15,000 as part of the Tufts competition, most of which she plans to use to hire another software developer. The biggest challenge, Dreyfus says, is matching an item a shopper is searching for — say, “pale pink v-neck sweater” — to a specific product sold through an online outlet.
“I’m a computer science major, so I couldn’t resist starting to write code as I was working on the business plan, just to make sure the idea was feasible,” she says. “But having another developer on board will let me move a lot faster.” She eventually hopes to expand PriceParrott to cover men’s apparel, too.
Though Dreyfus doesn’t want to detail exactly how her venture will make money, she does note that information that PriceParrott collects from consumers could prove valuable to online merchants as they try to figure out which items to mark down next.
MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition
LiquiGlide, audience choice award winner
An MIT lab dedicated to nanoengineering wants to eliminate one of the scourges of the backyard barbecue: the ketchup bottle that won’t cough up that last stubborn 10 percent.
A team of entrepreneurial scientists, led by Professor Kripa Varanasi, has developed a microscopically thin coating that would allow every drop of ketchup or any other condiment to slide out of the bottle. Research by Varanasi and his students — which included shaking ketchup and mayonnaise bottles as hard as they could and measuring what was left — estimated that about 1 million tons of food gets thrown away, stuck to the bottom and sides of containers.
“Our coating would let you get access to [it],” said Dave Smith, a graduate student on the team.
Varanasi and his team of four students and a postdoctoral researcher call the invention LiquiGlide. He notes that H.J. Heinz alone produces 675 million ketchup bottles every year.
The coating uses highly slippery materials that have already been approved by the FDA — all of them derived from plants.
“We’ve talked to various folks in the supply chain, from equipment makers to bottle makers to food companies, and they all love it and want it in their bottles,” Varanasi says. He expects the coating could be on the market in two or three years. And beyond just condiments, it could prove useful in containers for shampoos and lotions, Smith says.
LiquiGlide didn’t take home the big $100,000 prize at last Tuesday’s competition finals — that went to CloudTop, a system to help Internet users manage all the files they keep stored online — but it did win the audience choice award, which invites the crowd rather than the judges to pick its favorite idea.
Babson College BETA Challenge
ReconCraft, winner, graduate competition
Jay Hoflich had already started a boat dealership in San Francisco with his brother and a friend — all veterans of the Coast Guard — before he came to Babson College in Wellesley to earn his MBA. But as he worked on his degree, the company, which originally sold small powerboats to government customers, morphed into one that would make its own products to fill a market need that he and his partners discovered.
Government agencies and the military were hunting for tough boats that could give them access to “swamps, shallow rivers, and debris-laden flood zones that traditional boats have problems accessing,” Hoflich says. While they weren’t naval architects themselves, Hoflich says the trio felt they had enough boating experience and knowledge of the customer base to devise something of their own.
They came up with a design for a 21-to-28-foot line of boats with an aluminum hull and a jet-propulsion system that can operate in as little as 4 inches of water and reach a top speed of 50 miles per hour. “It can hit a log at full speed and not have any damage to the boat,” says Hoflich.
That’s thanks to a spray-on polymer coating on the hull called polyurea, which is also used to make military vehicles and government buildings more blast resistant. Hoflich says, “It’s really like a Humvee on the water.”
The boats, made in Washington state, sell for $150,000 to $500,000, depending on options. While Hoflich was at Babson (he graduated Saturday), the company landed its first big $8 million contract, from Customs and Border Protection, and then a second from the Department of Defense. Winning Babson’s BETA Challenge (the acronym stands for Babson Entrepreneurial Thought and Action) gave ReconCraft an additional $20,000 — plus free office space in Boston, where Hoflich plans to set up the company’s sales and marketing headquarters. Next up, ReconCraft has plans to develop an amphibious vehicle.
Boston University New Venture Competition
(Mark Cuban has put $500,000 into MOVL, KontrolTV’s parent.)
Dan Gnecco envisions a world where the cellphone is every bit as crucial to the TV viewing experience as the remote control.
The start-up company he founded with his father and a friend in 2010 is creating software that enables apps on your phone to interact with your television. You might scroll through a list of shows your friends are watching, and choose something that you can discuss with them later. (Gnecco says he watches ESPN’s “SportsCenter” every night and is also a fan of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a reality show about entrepreneurs and investors.)
The software would also support TV ads that invited you to take some sort of action on your mobile device, says Gnecco, 22, who graduated from BU’s School of Management last week. “Domino’s might offer you a discount if you click to order a pizza within the next 10 minutes,” he says.
The company is also thinking about how mobile phones might control TVs in public spaces like bars or restaurants. “We’ve developed a social jukebox, where you can have YouTube videos you like on your phone, and with the flick of a finger, you can send it to the TV, where it joins a queue,” Gnecco says. Other patrons would then be able to vote for the videos they’d most like to see, and those would rise in the queue.
The KontrolTV software would bring together a number of apps created by MOVL, the Atlanta-based company Gnecco helped start two years ago. The younger Gnecco plans to head to Silicon Valley next month. “All of the manufacturers of Internet-connected TV sets and devices are out there, and all our big partnerships so far have come from out there,” he says. “We just feel there are bigger opportunities in consumer-oriented technologies there.”
Before winning BU’s competition, Gnecco had helped the company land a $500,000 investment from Mark Cuban, the media entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. How did he meet Cuban? “I snuck into a conference at Babson last November,” he explains.