The annual Wharton Business Plan Competition is a crowd pleaser offering brainy ideas from entrepreneurial students, more than $100,000 in prizes to jumpstart new businesses and a layer of suspense.
This year, about 300 students, faculty, business executives and potential investors attended the 15th annual competition that marks the culmination of seven months of work for the eight contenders.
The finalists, or “great eight,” were winnowed down from 140 teams that entered the competition initially. At the starting gate in the fall, 350 students from 10 schools within the University of Pennsylvania community participated.
This year, four of the plans focused on health care — from a coating to shield eyes from night glare to an at-home diagnosis of sleep apnea. Others ranged from a new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis to a computer game that predicts fashion trends.
Each team is allowed to give a 10-minute presentation, complete with elaborate visuals and financial data, followed by two minutes of questioning from four judges. The judges were David A. Cohen of Karlin Asset Management, Maxine Gowen of Trevena, Richard Perlman of ExamWorks Group and Rich Riley, formerly of Yahoo.
This year, the top two prizes — in total, $45,000 — are named the Perlman Prize as a result of a $1.65 million contribution from Ellen Hanson Perlman and Richard E. Perlman to endow the prize monies in perpetuity.
Other prizes include $10,000 for third place and $3,000 for the winner of the People’s Choice Award, which is determined by audience ballot. Another $10,000 goes to the highest ranking team that is composed of at least 50% Wharton undergraduates.
Top winners will each receive an additional $15,000 in in-kind legal and accounting services from leading firms in the region. More cash prizes go to each of three teams selected to compete in three separate categories: the business plan with the greatest social impact; the most disruptive plan and the overall committee choice. Each of these three winners received $1,000.
Pick your own winners from the synopses below — listed alphabetically — and compare your choices with the judges’ decisions. Winners are published at the end. No cheating.
This is an anti-inflammatory drug currently in development that seeks to give relief to patients with early-stage rheumatoid arthritis, a common autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling and loss of function in the joints. Its cause is unknown. Administered orally, AlphaX would be the drug of choice in a $12 billion market because current treatment requires injections. It would also be substantially cheaper, says team leader Stanley Lim, a senior in Wharton’s undergraduate program.
AutoAlpha is an asset-light, subscription software program designed to reduce tedious paper shuffling in the finance industry, particularly for poorly managed private equity and venture capital firms. After spending years in private equity before coming to Wharton for his MBA a year ago, team leader David Wynee says he knew there had to be a better way. His program will allow companies to analyze portfolio performance, often aggregating multiple Excel files, to improve productivity and reduce error. So far, he has identified 600 firms in the New York area that could use his product.
Shopping in Southeast Asia can be a “nightmares for parents”: Traffic is horrendous, supplies are inadequate and price gouging is rampant. Team leader Ramji Sundararajan hopes to change that by creating an e-commerce startup for children’s products and family services, such as nanny agencies. With a combined size of 350 million customers and a 6% average annual growth in GDP, Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. Kidsworld, which emphasizes its free delivery service, says it would offer access to the best retailers.
Glare from bright lights at night can be dangerous and painful. This company will market a polymer patented by ophthalmologists at the University of California San Francisco that can be applied to eyeglasses, contact lenses, car windshields and headlamps. The current domestic market for anti-glare technology exceeds $790 million, according to team leader Frank Brodie, a first-year Wharton MBA and medical school student.
Athletes and patients who suffer from complications following Lasik surgery, cataracts and macular degeneration will be targeted first. The team also has identified the non-prescription market, valued at $1.9 billion.
Sleep disorders are so common that bricks and mortar clinics can’t keep up with the demand. That, plus the fact that patients dislike spending a night in a strange bed wired up with sensors, convinced team leader Taylor Jamerson, a freshman at Wharton and the youngest presenter at the competition, that the system needs a makeover. Her company would deliver diagnostic equipment, called Lyra, to a patient’s home, collect it the next day and process the data.
By making the test less burdensome to the consumer, Jamerson estimates that six million more people a year would take it, creating $8 billion in untapped health care revenue.
Better imaging for patients with osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease would reduce trial and error in diagnosis, produce a more targeted and faster treatment plan and potentially save health care dollars.
Siemens, one of the largest manufacturers of magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRI), is exploring the technology with team leader Ari Borthakur, a doctor and first-year Wharton executive MBA student. Borthakur says the company, which will operate as a contract research organization (CRO), is ready to officially launch. Quantaviz has negotiated the option to license the patents from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Technology Transfer.
Skinny belts are “in” one year and “out” the next — when everyone starts favoring a wider style. Indeed, fashion trends are harder to predict than the weather. Still, buyers for major retailers have to make their best guesses every season, thereby putting billions of dollars at risk, notes team leader Ben Cann, a second-year Wharton executive MBA student. He plans to increase predictability by crowd sourcing among fashion-conscious consumers. His company would offer retailers the opportunity to showcase new styles on a hand-held device, asking consumers to vote their preferences. In return, participants would receive discounts on merchandise or fashion show invitations. The plan is an interactive, real-time spin on popular fashion magazine features, such as “Who Wore It Best?” and “Hot or Not?”
Already up and running, this is an online retailer of cars. The goal, states team leader Jean-Mathieu Chabas, a second-year MBA student, is connecting buyers directly with commercial sellers — bypassing auto auctions, wholesalers and dealers. The company shares all available information on its cars, lists non-negotiable prices and delivers to buyers’ homes with a six-month premium guarantee. “We hope to redefine used car buying — a $50 billion market — by changing it from a painful experience to a peaceful one,” says Chabas.
And the Winner Is …
Zenkars won the top $30,000 prize and the $1,000 committee award as the overall favorite. Maculens took second prize — $15,000 — plus the $3,000 People’s Choice Award. Top Trender came in third, taking home $10,000, plus another $1,000 for presenting the plan most likely to disrupt the retail industry.
Chabas of Zenkars says the prize money will go toward marketing. So far, he and business partner Venkat Jonnaia, also a Wharton second-year MBA student, have invested $30,000 of their own money. The venture also received $20,000 from the American Dream Fund. “The website is [up and] running and we’ve already sold three cars,” Chabas notes. “Next, we will apply the best marketing strategies we’ve learned.”
Rob Bressler, a first-year Wharton MBA student and a business partner in MacuLens, says his company will bring the technology to reduce night glare direct to consumers via the Internet. One of the team’s first endeavors will be to place viewing boxes in ophthalmologists’ offices so patients can see the difference between lenses with the polymer applied and those without.
According to Cann of Top Trender, the prize money is just what he and his team need to launch a pilot with a major retailer, the first step in saving the industry huge sums by predicting what buyers want.
If history is an indicator, this year’s winners will join a litany of student teams that launched successful business plans at prior Wharton competitions. Last year’s grand prize winner, RightCare Solutions, has passed Round A, a critical step in funding from investors. RightCare is a software program that helps identify hospital patients most likely to be readmitted.
Winners from the 2010-2011 competition — Stylitics and baby.com.br — have closed various funding rounds and received extensive media coverage.