Ever since the dot.com bubble burst a decade ago, many students in Wharton’s Business Plan Competition (BPC) have turned their attention away from the Internet to other fields. This year was no exception, with six of the eight finalists presenting plans related to health care and the other two related to retail. The ideas included a cervical cancer screening device, an antibiotic to treat infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria, a private sales club for students and a healthy beverage for bottom of the pyramid markets.
Competing for more than $75,000 in combined prizes and in-kind legal/accounting services, the finalists presented their plans recently to five judges and an audience of venture capitalists, business leaders, faculty and students. The year-long competition — managed by Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs — is open to any University of Pennsylvania student.
This year, perhaps due to an improving economic environment, interest in the competition was significantly higher than in recent years. More than 230 teams entered the competition compared to 162 last year and 145 the year before. More than 250 judges were involved in the various phases of the competition, which begins in the fall with the initial submission of students’ business concepts. Over the year, the entries are whittled down until eight finalists remain to compete for the grand prize at the Venture Finals. The judges at the Venture Finals this year included representatives from CoActive Health Solutions, Karlin Asset Management, Trevena, First Round Capital and Merck. After hearing 10-minute presentations from the student teams, the judges interviewed the students about all aspects of their plans, such as market size, funding, time lines and intellectual property.
The team deemed to have the most viable business plan was named the first-place winner, receiving the $20,000 Michelson Grand Prize and $10,000 in legal and accounting services. The team in second place received $10,000 and $10,000 in legal and accounting services, and the team in third place received $5,000 cash as well as $10,000 in legal and accounting services. A People’s Choice Award of $3,000 also was presented.
Listed below, in alphabetical order, are overviews of the business plans presented by the finalists. See if you can guess the winner (revealed below):
CADIA Technologies: Should patients bet their lives on a 60-year-old medical technology that is inaccurate for one in five patients? According to team leader Greg Millhauser, a second-year Wharton MBA student, that is what women do every year when they rely on the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer.
He explained that CADIA’s CerviProbe offered a better alternative, as it uses a probe to immediately diagnose cancer with more sensitivity than the Pap test. Although the probe can be used on any mucous membrane in the body, the team chose to focus on its use for cervical screening based on the size of the market opportunity. In the United States, more than 50 million women receive Pap tests every year.
The CADIA team, which recently was named a finalist at the Rice University Business Plan Competition, plans to price the device at $3,500 and the separate sheath used in each procedure at $15. They intend to launch the business with high-volume physicians in six states by 2014. In the meantime, their plan involves continuing R&D, building a commercial prototype and seeking FDA approval by 2013.
Cellulosic Biotherapeutics: For five million people in the U.S., back pain is part of life. The only treatment option is pain killers, and many people eventually undergo spinal surgery. Cellulosic proposes a solution in the form of a biomedical device called the CelluloDisc. The device allows regeneration of the core part of the spinal disc using variants of a naturally occurring polymer to produce scaffolds for tissue regeneration. The injectable liquid would be the first spinal regenerative approach in the market, said Sigal Saar, the team leader and a first-year Wharton MBA student. Patients would recover in just three months.
The Cellulosic team, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, plans to finish the R&D and proof of concept phases by 2012 and clinical trials by 2018, at which time there would be a partnership opportunity with a major medical device company. The group expects a product launch in the European Union in 2014 and in the U.S. in 2018.
Cortical Concepts: To stabilize segments of the spine during back surgery, doctors insert rods and screws to hold the spine in place until it heals, which can take six to nine months. However, if the patient suffers from osteoporosis, a common disease among older patients, there is a high tendency for those rods and screws to pull out. Team leader Stephanie Huang, a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, explained that the process in those cases is like trying to hang a picture in drywall.
Because one in four patients undergoing this surgery has poor bone quality — a statistic expected to increase with the aging of the population — this is a significant problem. To solve it, Huang’s team proposes to develop the Cortical Anchor, which applies the dry wall anchor concept used for securing pictures to the spine. The device expands as the screw is inserted into the bone, negating the presence of osteoporosis conditions.
Cortical Concepts says the market for the device is 720,000 units or $300 million a year. The team, which was named a finalist in the Tulane University Business Plan Competition, proposed aggressive promotional marketing to create customer interest and already has lined up 25 surgeons from Johns Hopkins University who are ready to use the technology. With a provisional patent filed, Cortical Concepts projects an acquisition value in year five of $180 million.
First Stage Diagnostics: Team member Manish Maheshwari asked the audience members to think about the four most important women in their lives. Chances are, he said, that one of them has dense breast tissue and a 50% chance of having a tumor missed on a mammogram. To solve this problem, his team proposes a portable, low-cost breast cancer screening device called the Piezo Sensor that uses piezoelectric technology, or the ability of some materials to generate an electric field in response to mechanical stress.
Maheshwari noted that there is a $1.1 billion market opportunity, as the current practices to detect tumors are hard-to-read mammograms, expensive MRIs and ultrasounds that are prone to false positives. The Piezo Sensor, he said, can locate tumors as small as 1 mm in size and is radiation free. The technology comes from Drexel University where the research team has won two awards totaling $400,000. With a prototype already developed, the group intends to start a pilot study this year.
Hector Beverages LLC: Priced at just 18¢, Hector’s PowerWater is currently sold at the lowest price among branded beverages in India and is the only widely available health-oriented drink in that market, said team leader James Nuttall, a second-year Wharton MBA student. With a unique pouch package, the product is extremely low cost to make and stands up to the rigorous logistics systems in India, going to locations that purveyors of bottled beverages cannot reach.
According to Nuttall, PowerWater will be positioned as a healthy alternative to juices and soft drinks offered by the large multinational companies. With the beverage market in India worth $2.2 billion and annual sales growth of 30%-40%, Nuttall expects Hector’s revenue to exceed $100 million within its first five years.
As for competitors, Nuttall told the judges that when he approached large multinationals with this concept, they were interested but not prepared to be the first mover. So he expects larger beverage companies to come “knocking on his door” after the business is more established.
Kembrel.com: While there are 16.5 million U.S. college students who spend over $200 billion annually, particularly on brands they perceive as elevating their social status, students usually have a limited budget. This presents a problem for producers of consumer goods because it’s difficult to build loyalty and give students the prices they want without diluting company brands. The solution, according to team leader and first-year Wharton MBA student Aymeric de Hemptinne, is Kembrel.com, an invitation-only online private sales club for college students.
The online club seeks to provide heavily discounted items from desirable brands. For suppliers, the site would help them sell excess inventory by providing discounts that are not available to the general public. With similar shopping clubs such as Gilt Groupe and Rue La La making millions in revenue, there is a significant market opportunity for this type of business, said de Hemptinne.
The business would have low operating costs because students would be involved with all aspects of the site — from modeling and writing content to serving as campus sales representatives. With 10 brands on board, the team reported that site was host to 17,000 unique visitors in the last four weeks. A winner of a $10,000 Wharton Venture Award, team members have turned down internship offers to build the company over the summer with plans to continue after graduation.
NanoLab: Imagine going to a doctor’s appointment where the nurse not only takes your blood pressure, but also swabs your cheek as part of the routine protocol. By the time the doctor walks into the room 15 minutes later, he knows if you are at risk for heart disease, have influenza or even if you have cancer. According to team leader Michelle Gaster, a first-year Wharton MBA student, this scenario could become a reality with a device the size of a handheld calculator that uses magnetic nanotags to simultaneously detect the presence and concentration of up to 64 different proteins in the body.
Team member Christopher Fortier, a first-year Wharton MBA student, said NanoLab would begin by targeting high-value diagnostics such as screening for cardiac markers, a common test conducted in emergency rooms with a $1.2 billion market. After cardiac enzyme panel tests, the next markets would include tumor and infectious disease screening. NanoLab won the IEEE Student Humanitarian Supreme Prize in 2009. The team also recently competed in Stanford’s Business Plan Competition.
R2R Therapeutics: Two years ago, second-year Wharton MBA student Ben Rhee almost lost his wife to a bacterial infection that followed the removal of her wisdom teeth. Fortunately, antibiotics worked to fight off the infection and saved her life. However, deadly superbugs are becoming more common and because they are resistant to most antibiotics, even drugs of last resort often won’t work or cause toxic side effects.
Rhee’s team proposes a novel cationic steroid antibiotic called R2R-1 to combat these superbugs. With a global antibiotic market worth $25 billion, the team’s plan involves focusing on treating hospital-acquired infections. Rhee explained that pharmaceutical companies tend not to be active in this area, as the targets quickly mutate to become drug resistant. R2R-1 would provide a solution by disrupting the cell membrane and killing the bacteria, meaning that the target should change less often.
So far, the team reported that R2R-1 appears to be resistant to resistance, safe and highly potent. Using technology discovered at the University of Pennsylvania, the group’s plan involves operating as a virtual company, outsourcing as much as possible to keep operating costs low, and hiring a CEO and CFO to take the company forward.
And the Winner Is …
Cortical Concepts, won the Michelson Grand Prize. Second place was awarded to NanoLab, and R2R Therapeutics won third place. The People’s Choice Award went to Kembrel.com.
Jason Hsu, a Cortical Concepts team member and graduate engineering student at Johns Hopkins University, said that the idea for the plan began two years ago as an undergraduate class assignment at Johns Hopkins with team leader Huang. This year, Hsu and Huang, who own the IP, were joined by other engineering graduate students at Johns Hopkins, where they continued to develop the technology. The team is currently looking for licensing partners and has already seen strong interest from spinal device companies.
“It’s a single product that would work better in someone else’s pipeline where they already have distribution, sales and marketing in place. It makes sense for us to find someone in the industry to take on our product,” said Hsu, who graduates in May and is planning to work at a medical technology company. “We’ll use the prize money to complete our R&D and round out testing to show that we have a better product to offer companies.”
As for NanoLab, the team is interested in further developing the venture and building a prototype. The engineering work, said Gaster, will be done by the inventors — who happen to be her twin brother, Richard Gaster, and his colleague Drew Hall at Stanford University. Meanwhile, the Wharton MBA students on the NanoLab team plan to reach out to VCs and develop relationships with distributors and manufacturers in order to see if the business is a viable option to pursue after graduation.
Rhee of the R2R Therapeutics team said that their technology isn’t far enough along to seek funding so instead the team members, who are all second-year Wharton MBA students, are planning to work as consultants, or for pharmaceutical companies, after graduation. They intend to continue discussions with advisors to see if there is a path forward for the company, such as finding an experienced entrepreneur to come on board or conducting more experiments to validate the technology.
Since the Wharton business plan competition began 12 years ago, participants have tended to do quite well with their ventures. Companies such as InnovaMaterials, Petplan, PayMyBills.com, Integral Molecular and DealMaven all started out as competitors in the BPC and at least seven of the past grand prize winners are still in business.