Swimming in the waters of “a generous shark tank,” nine Saint Mary’s students pitched their best ideas at the School of Economics and Business Administration's Third Annual Business Idea Competition this March hosted by the Center for Regional Economy. In front of a full—and occasionally boisterous—crowd in the Soda Center, undergraduates and graduates alike presented to a panel of judges with a wealth of industry knowledge and valuable connections. Among the panelists was Randy Williams, the founder and CEO of the angel investor network Keiretsu Forum, which has partnered with Saint Mary’s to host the competition each of the last three years.
The big winner of the night was MBA student Gerald Cabrera, who took home both graduate and audience prizes on the strength of his impassioned pitch for his company, Advance Energy Solutions. Cabrera’s team has developed a solar sleeve that attaches to light poles, cutting down on the energy required to light city streets, thus saving cities and municipalities money. Additional services such as Wi-Fi subscriptions, VOIP telecommunications, street surveillance, and exporting power back to public utility providers are also possible with Advance Energy Solutions’ technology. Cabrera received a score of 45 (out of potential 50) and was the only competitor to receive a perfect 10 from one of the judges.
Competitors were given two minutes to pitch their ideas, followed by four minutes of questions from the panel, and then a four-minute period for direct feedback. Ideas were judged on the spot using a 1-10 scoring system.
“I was a little nervous,” said Hiroji Fukui, an MBA student whose company Series ABC matches institutional investors and companies seeking non-seed growth capital. “The competition is tough and the panel asked a lot of good questions. It was difficult, but it’s supposed to be. The competition was a great challenge.”
Students competed in three different categories—undergraduate, graduate, and an audience prize of the entire field. The undergraduate prize consisted of $2,000, three hours of legal counsel and an opportunity to present their idea at the upcoming Angel Capital Expo. Similarly, first place in the graduate competition would net the winner $3,000, three hours of partner time with Hanson Bridgett and a spot in the Angel Capital Expo. Both the undergraduate and graduate prizes were sponsored by Northwestern Mutual of Walnut Creek and Pleasanton. The winner of the audience vision prize was awarded $1,000 made possible by the Stull Family Professorship in Entrepreneurship.
The truncated elevator pitches had to convey the basics of the business, and the competitors had to field a myriad of questions that came from the panel. From how will you protect your company from liability? to do you have a working prototype? students had to defend their ideas and address the types of concerns that venture capitalists or angel investors might have in a formal meeting.
“This competition is really valuable,” said MBA student Ashleigh Bernardo, whose company DwellIt aims to be the Carfax of real estate. “It’s a way to use my education in a practical way. Plus it’s a great way to get experience presenting.”
Taking home the undergraduate prize was Travis Cockcroft for Quickdoctors, a company designed to maximize revenue for doctor’s offices by utilizing mobile services to book appointments. The panel was impressed that Quickdoctors identified a need and that Cockcroft was already working with a customer to launch his vision.
“We also bet on jockeys,” Williams added in his feedback for Cockcroft. “You were poised and the information was well presented. These things matter when making a pitch.”
Before the merriment and congratulations that followed, the crowd was addressed by Professor Berna Aksu, director for the Center for Regional Economy, and Northwestern Mutual’s managing director Wayne Hill. Said Hill, “If you have a great idea and you are persistent, you will get funding.”
“The future is in ideas,” he added. “This competition is proof of that.”
"Saint Mary's was recently named one of the 40 colleges that change lives," said Aksu. "Programs like this Competition are the kind of opportunities, we believe, that can effect that kind of transformational change."