It was Ferris Bueller, in the seminal 1986 movie bearing his name, who noted, “when the meek get pinched, the bold survive.” This same spirit pervades entrepreneurs during an economic downturn, who shrug off the relative safety of salaried positions to throw themselves into the brier patch of bleak projections. Despite the enhanced risk, history demonstrates innovation can and will trump economy. Brad Feld, Managing Director of the venture capital firm Foundry Group, recently pointed on his blog to all the name-brand firms started in a downturn: Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, and Adobe, to name just a few. But finding initial momentum – be it funding or credibility – can hobble the most ingenious of ideas, which is why the CU New Venture Challenge arrives at such a timely moment. The University seeks to not only award cash to an enterprising idea, but also position the winning startup teams for dialogue with Colorado’s venture capital and incubator communities.
The business plan competition – with a submission deadline of April 1 – has a simple set of rules. First, each team presenting a plan must contain a member carrying a University of Colorado ID, and that person is expected to play a substantive role in the intended startup. Second, any business that has generated revenue before January 15th of this year cannot participate. Beyond those two requirements, the competition welcomes all business plans from any field, including but not limited to IT, sustainability, natural products, manufacturing, arts, non-profit, health, and social ventures.
The CU New Venture Challenge was designed to be more than a contest, and its ambitions become clear through considering the cross-department resources dedicated to the project. Brad Bernthal, Associate Law Professor and Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives at Silicon Flatirons, notes the contest was developed to “catalyze the culture of entrepreneurship” across all departments at the University, and his “co-conspirators” are evident on the contest website – partners include the Law, Business, ATLAS, Engineering, and Telecommunications schools and programs at CU. The competition has also sought to provide guidance for those seeking to submit a plan, regularly hosting workshops and ‘crash courses’ covering such topics as “Growing a Startup Amid Uncertain Economic Times,” “Intellectual Property,” “Marketing for Web-based Professionals,” and most recently “Raising Venture Capital.” The last workshop – held after the submission deadline but before teams present to the judges – is “Presenting and Selling Your Business Plan” on April 2nd.
The CU Venture Challenge will net the winning team $5000, second place will reap $3000, and third place will take home $1000. In addition, the top Computer Science plan will be eligible for a $3000 cash prize and four months of office space at Boulder’s Techstars, the Colorado incubator responsible for mentoring such local success stories as Socialthing! and EventVue.
The most prosperous entrepreneurial communities have a litany of unique factors, but the one common denominator among them is connection to a University system brimming with startup-minded students and professors. Says Jill Rennert, Silicon Flatirons Entrepreneurial Law Fellow and one of the lead New Venture Challenge coordinators, “One of the aims of the CU NVC is to facilitate networking among the various disciplines at CU and the outside community with an eye towards stimulating the process of viable venture creation.” Seen from this perspective, while the Challenge will provide a few ideas with momentum and money, the infrastructure and intra-departmental connections established for this debut contest should move the University one step closer to becoming the backbone of Colorado’s entrepreneurial designs.
Full contest details, instructions, and contact information can be found here.