Entrepreneurs face the firing line


Talk about gut-wrenching.

You've just poured your soul out to a group of people you've never met, trying to convince them with slides and self-assurance why they should pour millions of their own dollars into your would-be business.

Then one of them asks, "Have you done any research that would indicate that there is a real demand for this?"

You pause, caught off-guard momentarily. And even though you regain your composure and soldier on, somewhere inside, you know you've just kissed the money goodbye.

The stakes weren't quite that high at the finals of the first annual Wharton Business Plan Competition, held April 27 at The Rittenhouse Hotel. But the rest of the process was every bit as grueling.

Or almost as grueling, according to Fred Newberg, president and CEO of NewCap, Inc., a venture capitalist who mentored contest competitors and reviewed the semifinalists' business plans.

"This is kind of timid," he said of the questions the nine judges asked the finalists. "Usually, they'd face a much more grueling, probing line of questioning.

"The questioner would be an 'angel' seeking to put up millions of dollars. These judges are only seeking to award a prize. But the presentation is similar, though."

The idea behind the competition - the first ever held by Wharton's Goergen Entrepreneurial Management Program - is to stimulate entrepreneurship across the campus by exposing potential business owners to every step of the process of starting a new company.

The competition began last November, when contest organizers asked students to submit business ideas. The organizers received 128 submissions from both undergraduate and graduate students.

After a review by a panel of Wharton Small Business Development Center alumni, the submissions underwent feasibility studies, in which businesspeople, and other professionals evaluated their potential for success. The 28 teams that made it past this cut then put together fully-formed business plans; of these, eight were selected to advance to the final round.

The students didn't have to go through the weeding-out process alone, though. A mentoring program paired team members with business owners in related fields, and clinics brought in professionals to help students with legal and organizational matters.

Some of those professionals were heavy hitters indeed. "I got to meet with Steven Goodman of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius for free," said Molly Kerr (WG'00), who served on the contest organizing committee until her plan for a chain of airport nail salons made the final cut. In addition to legal advice, she said, "he also had general advice about meeting with start-up investors."

While all eight finalist teams were composed of MBA students, more than half of the original submissions came from undergraduates.

The day's big winners, were Kevin Murphy, Maury Apple and Brian Richards' RadioXchange, a proposal for an Internet-based auction market for the radio industry that won the $25,000 Safeguard Scientifics Grand Prize, and the Living Strategies team of Sandeep Wadhwa, Christopher Gatti and Lynn Dwyer, whose proposal for a Web-based system to identify seniors' housing and medical-care needs and match them with appropriate providers won the $10,000 Snider Seed Capital Prize.

Kerr expected the winners to put that money to good use, and the rest to learn from their experience. "I'm highly confident that many of the teams in this competition will go on, and not just the finalists," she said.

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Originally published on May 13, 1999