Students Compete for Business Startups

March 7, 2012

By Sandy Hicks

You have a brilliant idea for a new business or product when you find yourself riding in the same elevator with the CEO, business mogul or venture capitalist who could be the key to your success. What can you do on a 60-second elevator ride? A lot, according to organizers of the 4th annual Camino Real Venture Competition (CRVC), a business plan contest being held March 9 and 10 at The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Business Administration and the Hilton Garden Inn.

Student teams from UTEP, New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico, the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado State University and Tec Milenio-Chihuahua will gather to demonstrate their business savvy through three phases of competition over two days. Teams produce a written business plan, a PowerPoint presentation, and what can often be the real game-changer in any venture, the “60-Second Elevator Pitch.” There is more at stake for these competitors than just bragging rights and a blue ribbon. Real cash prizes are up for grabs; cash prizes that can fund the start-up costs of the business idea being presented. The final winner is also guaranteed a slot at the next level of competition, the Venture Labs Investment Competition held in May at The University of Texas in Austin.

The CRVC is the brainchild of many collaborators and lovers of the entrepreneurial spirit in business and technology such as the Center for Research Entrepreneurship and Innovative Enterprises (CREIE) at UTEP, The Hub of Human Innovation (HUB), the Bi-National Sustainability Laboratory (BNSL) and The United States-Mexico Foundation for Science (FUMEC). Two major players in the competition are UTEP’s College of Business and College of Engineering.

David Novick, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Engineering, is a relative newcomer to the CRVC organizing committee, but is just as enthusiastic as the veteran committee members. Novick sees incredible possibilities for students in the endeavor.

“For students who are interested and ready, the competition provides a unique opportunity to grow skills and get feedback; they have their ideas listened to by people familiar with the start-up process,” he said.

Fellow organizing committee member, Gary Williams, Ph.D., director of CREIE, shows visible enthusiasm when talking about the CRVC.

“The goal of this contest is to provide student entrepreneurs an opportunity to compete with like-minded people who are interested in business. It is worth the effort because it teaches students how to prepare roughly six months of quality work in about two months,” he said. Williams is proud that CREIE offers support to any students with entrepreneurial aspirations through mentoring and workshops that teach them how to take their plan from idea to commercialization. Williams recalls a two-time competitor and past winning team of CRVC that successfully launched the idea they presented into the marketplace. The company, EvoAir [Evolved Aircraft Systems], specializes in innovative products for light aircraft.

Michael Acosta, director of FUMEC/El Paso has been on the CRVC judging panel since the competition began. Acosta said one of his favorite things about judging the contest is seeing the variety of innovations from the teams and the business plans they present. While all three of the competition phases are equally important, the PowerPoint presentation is critical because a team must know how to market and sell their product or service, Acosta said.

“If they can’t sell it in the PowerPoint, it’s not going to fly,” he said. “This is a business plan competition; having a great innovation is not enough, they must have a plan that is both persuasive and dazzling, but factual.”

One of UTEP’s four competing teams is comprised of engineering graduate students Jorge Mireles and David Espolin, business graduate student Diego Capaletti, and doctoral student Cesar Terrazas.

“It has been a very exciting,” Mireles said of their highly technical project. “One of our team members, Diego Capaletti, is an MBA student and his understanding of the business side of things has made this a great collaboration.” The team members agree that if they win, they want to use the prize money to launch their business. Although the students will be playing to the judges, they hope to draw a crowd. The contest is open to the public, including the reception held at the Hilton Garden Inn in the evening of the first day of competition.

Alberto Correa, Ph.D., president of Quantum Research of the West Inc., Mexico’s representative of Team Technologies Inc., is another original CRVC judge. His advice to student competitors is "Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!" he said. "Although your idea is your dream, a business plan should not be a story of your dreams. It is a cold, analytical sales document full of facts and figures – it should sell your idea with facts and research." As a judge and mentor, Correa likes to see PowerPoint presentations that are a clean, professional, uncluttered summary of the business plan and include a market analysis, a marketing strategy and a sales plan. He also believes that in real life, the elevator pitch is paramount.

"Without a good elevator pitch, you won't get the opportunity to have your business plan read or your PowerPoint seen," he said.

The Bi-National Sustainability Laboratory and the Camino Real Angels were among the original catalysts for the creation of the CRVC. BNSL is a nonprofit organization designed to help create high growth, tech-based and innovative businesses in the border region from San Diego to Brownsville. Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., executive director of BNSL, is also an enthusiastic member of the judge’s panel.

“In terms of showing students interested in being their own boss, who want to be a part of something new and big, this contest will show them very real aspects to starting a business,” he said. As a judge, Maxwell is looking for that student who can convince him they know how to get from A to Z, from idea to commercialization.

“While it’s great to be wowed by a presentation, a competitor needs to know why they are asking an investor to put up funds, and be able to express that,” he said.

Nancy Lowery, assistant director of HUB and a driving force behind the success of the CRVC, is proud of the competition and works very hard in tandem with faculty, students and community leaders to produce a quality contest. Lowery is excited that students from near and far can experience the amazing opportunity to have their ideas heard and receive invaluable feedback from professionals in diverse fields of business and academia. And of course, a cash prize doesn’t hurt.

 
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