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Entrepreneurs vie for prizes, investors

Marcela Berrios | Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Facebook began as a Harvard student’s idea – and today the social network is a business valued at nearly $1 billion.

The next great idea could be under construction right now – and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies’ business plan competition could be the tool that helps it become a reality.

The Center’s annual contest awards more than $40,000 in prizes to teams of students, alumni and University employees that can present to potential investors promising and innovative ventures and their respective business plans.

Since 1999, the yearlong competition has drawn students from every college and major to submit pioneering, financially-realizable projects and helped them to produce a business proposal they can submit to investors, Daniel Buckenmeyer, the Center’s associate director, said Tuesday.

“Students can come up with ideas that may seem crazy at first, but in reality they may be the next YouTube, and this competition allows them to build a tool that will tell them whether or not this thing can succeed in the marketplace,” Buckenmeyer said. “It’s a real world test bed for students.”

The competition’s judges are not professors or University administrators but rather outside businessmen who volunteer their time to the Center through the IrishAngels network.

The network brings together Notre Dame alumni who have entrepreneurial experience and share the Center’s educational mission of fostering entrepreneurship in students through education and teamwork.

“It is through IrishAngels that we are able to find the speakers that come to campus throughout the year to teach the students how to put together a business plan,” Buckenmeyer said. “And they review every single business plan that gets produced in this competition.”

He said by putting the students’ work in the hands of IrishAngels judges rather than professors, the Center is drawing a clear line between the classroom and the real marketplace.

“The people that look at the business plan aren’t grading grammar. They are looking at them from a pure, real-world business perspective and saying ‘Would this thing sell?’ And that’s really the value of the competition,” Buckenmeyer said. “Students will know the marketplace value of their invention or their venture.”

Last year, approximately 80 teams entered the competition with nothing but an idea and a general proposal to realize it. About 40 teams made it to the next round, where they actually had to produce a full-length business plan.

And the Gigot Center walked the different teams through this process.

With training sessions and workshops spread throughout the academic year, the Center teaches students how to prepare each section of their business plans, from recognizing a good idea to understanding the target customer to locating funding for the project.

Besides IrishAngels, the NASDAQ Educational Foundation and PaloAlto Software help the Gigot Center prepare the teams for the final round of the competition, where they will pitch their venture to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs.

Each team working on a business plan, Buckenmeyer said, will be partnered with a mentor from the IrishAngels network that will contribute his professional expertise to the project.

“One of the teams from several years ago continued to work with its mentor from the business plan competition even after winning it. Their mentor helped them launch the business, and the team actually hired its mentor as the company’s CEO,” Buckenmeyer said.

That company, Better World Books, is now an established social enterprise that collects used books and resells them to collect money for under-resourced literacy programs.

“They are one of the top book sellers in the Internet right now, shipping out about 7,000 books every day,” he said.

And Better World Books isn’t the only success story that has come out of the Gigot business plan competition.

One of last year’s finalist teams will get on-air time during NBC’s broadcast of the USC game as the Notre Dame “What would you fight for?” commercial will feature its invention, a patented device that helps blind competitive swimmers know when they are reaching the pool’s walls.

Annie Sawicki, a swimming coach at the Joyce Center, said she wanted to find a way to help blind swimmers work their way back and forth across the pool’s lanes without depending on a sighted counterpart to tell them when they’re approaching the edge.

The project, now called Adapt Tap, has already garnered the attention of ABC, ESPN and NBC Sports.

“I truly feel that NBC Sports captured what we continue to try to do, which is fight against all odds to help our fellow [blind] students out here at Notre Dame as they were very challenged in our facilities,” Sawicki said.

Blind Notre Dame students James Fetter and Ashley Nashleanas, as well as other students and professors, helped Sawicki develop the business plan for the Gigot competition, an experience she remembers fondly.

“Every step we were given more mentors and Irish Angels. Everyone had more points and more was developed,” she said.

Adapt Tap is currently seeking funding to test its three prototypes with 20 subjects across the Midwest. Sawicki said she hopes the product will be ready for launch before the 2008 Olympics kick off.

And Sawicki’s entrepreneurial venture isn’t the only one helping make lives better.

One of last year’s winning business plans, PFNC – which stands for “Por Fin, Nuestra Casa” (Spanish for “Finally, a home of our own”) – sought to improve the living arrangements of Latin American immigrants in the areas around Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

“We have seen the poverty that these people live in, and have always wanted to find a way to help,” said senior Pablo Nava, one of the members of the PFNC team.

PFNC approaches established corporations in the Juarez/El Paso areas and works with them to build affordable housing for immigrants using abandoned shipping and trucking containers from across the nation.

A year after winning one of the competition’s two top prizes, Nava and his team members are still developing PFNC, using many of the contacts he made during his run with the IrishAngels.

“The [Gigot] competition was a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, and absolutely worth every last second,” he said. “It forced us to answer many difficult questions that we had not considered, and it forced us to put on paper what we had in our heads. It was also great to have such established business people evaluating our idea, from across the nation, and offering very valuable input.”

Besides PFNC, the other winning team last year was Solar Shade, a team that impressed the judges with its high-end invention.

Senior Will McLeod says he came up with the idea in physics class, while he was learning about polarizers.

“I had heard of a product called ‘Smart Windows’ that tints from clear to black on command, and I thought, ‘I know how they do that,’ but then I looked it up, and it turns out they did it an entirely different way,” McLeod said.

And in that way, he and his teammates wrote a business plan around their own “Smart Window.”

“SolarShade, now called Lono LLC, just got a grant to help develop our technology to a more manufacturable product,” he said. “We are in talks with a Nanotech firm to start making a first round product, and we’re pushing ahead with the long slow patent process.”

But though there’s still work to be done, McLeod says he’s proud of his team’s product, which can tint from nearly completely clear to mirrored. They hope to sell licenses to skylight and RV window manufacturers, which may be interested in the product.

He said he met RV manufacturers through the Gigot Center, and he encouraged students to take advantage of their services, “even if you don’t know anything about business.”

“If you have the patience to seek out the help – and they put it right there in front of you in this program – you can do it,” McLeod said. “Look at us [engineers]. We beat MBA’s, Ph.D’s and grad students.”