Rowing, Robots and Roommates: And the Best Business Plan Is…

A decade ago — with the dot.com boom in full swing and no shortage of venture funding — entries in the Wharton Business Plan Competition (BPC) were dominated by technology-oriented ideas. This year, with the economy in disarray, business plans from the “Great Eight” finalists played the field, with products ranging from a new training machine for crew teams to artificial eyes that dilate to a noninvasive way of measuring blood sugar levels.

Competing for more than $70,000 in cash and prizes, the eight teams that reached the BPC finals presented their plans on April 29 to a panel of judges and an audience of nearly 300 venture capitalists, business leaders, faculty and students. The competition is open to any University of Pennsylvania student and is managed by Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs.

Despite the challenges of starting a business during a down economy, interest in the BPC was higher this year than in the past two years. More than 160 teams entered the contest compared to 145 last year and 151 the year before. BPC 2009 launched last fall with the submission of students’ business concepts. The teams then competed throughout the year for a spot as one of the eight finalists.

At the April 29 event, each team made a 20-minute presentation and fielded questions from the judges, including representatives from Karlin Asset Management, Alta Communications & Marion Equity Partners, jVen Capital, Schering-Plough and Union Square Ventures. In addition to asking questions about competitors, the size of potential markets and the amount of funding needed, the judges also delved into pricing issues, questioning teams about whether consumers in this economy would pay the often hefty prices of the various products and services.

The team determined by the judges to have the most viable business plan was named the grand prize winner, receiving the $20,000 Michelson Grand Prize and eligibility for in-kind legal and accounting services. The second-place team won $10,000 and the third-place team received $5,000. The Gloeckner Undergraduate Award of $5,000 was given to the highest-finishing undergraduate team, and a People’s Choice Award of $3,000 was bestowed at the end of the night.

Test your ability to pick a winner by reading the business plan summaries below. Results are announced at the end of the article. Be strong; don’t peek.

CuddleBots: Many parents know what it’s like to buy a new toy for their children, only to see the novelty quickly wear off and the toy become a source of clutter rather than entertainment. CuddleBots aims to prevent that problem with a fully-programmable toy that can deliver an interactive experience right out of the box.

According to team leader and Wharton MBA student Joseph Zwillinger, a 6-year-old could play with the robot, a 10-year-old could program it and a 25-year-old could potentially make money off it, as the open source software allows programmers to download the development kit and write new programs for the robot.

The team, which is currently in the R&D phase, reported that the market for personal robotics toys makes up the fastest-growing segment in the broader toy market. While the robot’s price tag of $250 might be an obstacle for parents, particularly in the current economy, the team said that most parents spend about $350 a year on toys and that the marketing strategy is to target more affluent households and emphasize the product’s educational aspects.

DocAsap: When a team member’s child had a painful ear infection a year ago, he called eight doctors listed on his insurer’s web site only to find that the contact information was incorrect or that there were no available appointments for days. After a trip to the emergency room, he decided to find a better way to set up appointments for medical care.

DocAsap is an online service that solves this problem by enabling patients to view descriptions of doctors, see available appointment times, check which insurance plans are accepted and book appointments. The service also notifies patients when last-minute appointments open up. Think Opentable.com — an online restaurant reservation service —  but for medical services.

While it is commonly thought that patients prefer not to switch doctors, the team maintains that 77% of patients will switch in exchange for more timely appointments. They also say that many doctors’ offices operate with 30% or more excess capacity, representing $170 billion in lost income. Team leader Vincente de Baca, a Wharton MBA student, described the startup process as a “speed game” in which they need “to quickly [contact] doctors and dentists to lock up relationships.” With two customers already based in Philadelphia, they plan to prove themselves in a single market targeting larger practices before moving on to other cities.

Myvideoport: This online video distribution platform allows content owners, such as filmmakers, to distribute their videos across multiple online video sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.tv and Metacafe, as well as track and analyze their videos’ performance using an analytics interface. Team leader Abdul Mirpur, a Wharton MBA student, noted that a big problem for filmmakers is that online distribution is very time consuming.

This service allows filmmakers to upload a video once and distribute it across a network, obtaining valuable data about how it is viewed that could interest sponsors and investors. Once the team has built a library of content, it also plans to launch a service to help video producers obtain distribution on paid download sites such as Netflix. According to Mirpur, there are currently 54,000 potential users in this fastest-growing segment of the online video market. The alpha product is ready to launch this summer and a test customer, Grindstone Entertainment, has already signed up.

NIR Diagnostics: Evaluating the healing of a complex wound is difficult at best. With a ruler as the current standard of care, doctors miss opportunities to adjust treatments that would make a difference in patient outcomes about half the time, according to team leader Pitamber Devgon, a Wharton MBA student. His team’s product, Infra Vue, is a noninvasive, near-infrared device that measures wound healing and can better predict wound complications.

Driven by an increase in obesity and diabetes, which can interfere with healing, the team sees a $1.1 billion global market for wound assessment. While the device would cost $35,000, the team will emphasize leasing the product to customers to make it more affordable. The group has a functional prototype, positive clinical data and no current competitors. The team also has support from the device’s inventors and has outlined a path to licensing the technology this summer from Drexel University.

PayDivvy: When living with roommates, dividing up the utility bills and ensuring they get paid can be a source of headaches. Wharton MBA student Michael Melby, who won a Wharton Venture Award, learned this first-hand one summer when he found himself in charge of tracking bills on a spreadsheet and collecting checks ranging from 72 cents to $72 from roommates. Inspired to find a better way to manage group finances, he came up with PayDivvy, a technology company that provides a pay service for roommates’ utility bills. PayDivvy also provides services for social group bill payments from activities such as group dinners.

The core roommate bill payment service will target the 16 million college students at 4,000 universities and colleges who pay five to seven bills on average each month. While there are other startups in this area, Melby said they are not exact matches. And once a client signs up, Melby anticipates a “very sticky” relationship in which the logistical hurdles involved in switching to another service would be too high to lose customers to any new competition. Given the untapped market, he estimates that “guerilla marketing” efforts on one college campus alone would likely be enough for the team to meet its year-one revenue goal.

Realistic Eye: Artificial eyes look pretty natural these days — except for the fact that the pupils don’t dilate. Realistic Eye addresses this problem with technology — a polarized disk embedded in the prosthesis as well as special polarized glasses — that makes the static pupil appear to dilate. There are no moving parts or batteries that could corrode so there are no safety issues or need for FDA approval. The team plans to work with ocularists — who custom-make artificial eyes — to help them sell the product to patients. The patient would pay a fee to the ocularists for the prosthesis, and the ocularist would pay Realistic Eye for the equipment.

Team member Erich Horn said he expects to reach all 400 ocularists in the U.S. with four salespeople. As for market size, he reported that 18,000 people lose an eye every year due to accidents or disease. With a potential U.S. market exceeding 750,000 people and prosthesis patients needing to replace artificial eyes every four or five years, Horn, an executive MBA student at Wharton West, called it an untapped market. He added that the prototypes work and the inventor is willing to sign over the patent in exchange for equity in the company.

Remote Integrated Monitoring Solutions: This medical device company aspires to provide the Holy Grail in the world of diabetes: a noninvasive method to measure blood sugar levels. Currently, when diabetics need to monitor glucose levels, they have to puncture their skin to test blood. This is particularly worrisome for parents whose children have diabetes and are reluctant to check their own levels. Raman Gupta, Penn Engineering student and spokesperson for Remote Integrated Monitoring Solutions, says that his team’s product — called “GlucAlert” — addresses this issue by providing a monitor that looks like a wristwatch and measures glucose levels through occlusion, a form of optical spectroscopy. The watch would track glucose levels and send data to parents and doctors. By paying a monthly service charge, parents could also receive alerts when glucose levels are too high.

With 24 million diabetes patients worldwide, the team sees a large market for the device, which would cost consumers $950 along with a monthly data transmission fee. They hope insurers will cover the cost of the device, but they also expect it to be highly valued by patients and their parents. The team is currently working on licensing the technology and developing the software and prototype with a product launch date anticipated in 2013.

StealthRowing: Growing up in Utah as an avid rower, Wharton undergraduate student Daniel Harbuck found it challenging to practice his sport outdoors in the winter. Moving indoors to swimming pools for practice, he began designing a new type of shell that mimics the outdoor rowing experience, but takes up less space in pools and can be easily assembled and disassembled. His boat, the Stealth007, recently made its debut with Penn’s rowing team this past winter.

Current alternatives on the market include rowing machines and rowing tanks, but the machines don’t allow teams to practice synchronization, and tanks don’t provide balance training — plus, they cost $600,000. The Stealth007 would be priced at $13,495, which is similar to the cost of a traditional pair shell. As for demand, he said that 75% of rowing teams in the U.S. are located in cold weather climates and need a way to practice synchronization and balance during the winter. When rowing clubs were interviewed, 82% expressed interest and 72% expressed purchase intent. Because the product could be sold to YMCAs and high schools with pools, Harbuck says that it could also help introduce more diversity to the sport of rowing.

And the Winner Is…

NIR Diagnostics, which took home the Michelson Grand Prize of $20,000 cash with an additional $10,000 worth of legal and accounting services. NIR Diagnostics also received the most votes in the People’s Choice Award, winning an additional $3,000 prize for being the audience’s favorite. Second place went to CuddleBots, which received a $10,000 cash award and $10,000 in legal and accounting services. Realistic Eye came in third, receiving a $5,000 cash award and $10,000 in legal and accounting services. The Gloeckner Undergraduate Award of $5,000 for the highest-ranking undergraduate team went to StealthRowing.

Devgon said the NIR Diagnostics team plans to launch the business this summer in Philadelphia. Team members Bosun Hau, Xiaoming Fang and Armen Karamanian are finishing MBA and PhD programs, and are moving ahead to finalize the licensing agreement, expand the number of patients in the human pilot study and pursue seed and early stage funding. Devgon has an internship at Medtronic this summer as well as one more year in Wharton’s MBA program, but said he will be spending all of his spare time working with the team.

Cuddlebots also plans to move ahead, basing the business in the San Francisco area where team member Buzzy Bonneau lives. They aren’t ready to launch yet, but will spend next year working on product R&D while Zwillinger completes his MBA at Wharton.

Realistic Eye is also based on the West Coast — all team members are students in Wharton’s MBA for Executives Program in San Francisco. The team is ready to go. They are in the process of incorporating as well as tweaking the business plan based on the judges’ comments.

If past winners of the BPC are any indication, the chances for success look good for this year’s group. At least seven of the grand prize winners from the past decade are still in business, with several taking in millions in revenue and/or financing. Other BPC teams that have gone on to become successful businesses include PayMyBills.com, buySAFE, NetConversions, Integral Molecular, DealMaven, InfraScan, Verge Solutions, Embrace Pet Insurance, PetPlan USA and MicroMRI.

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