Pitch Perfect: Selling the Next Great Idea

Innovation at UT

This story is part of our "Eyes on Innovation" series, which explores UT's world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.


Improved vaccines, nutrient-filled spice packets, the next-generation of solar panels and a way to harvest energy from footsteps are a few of the ideas being put to the test during three different entrepreneurial competitions The University of Texas at Austin is hosting this month.

In February alone, up-and-coming entrepreneurs will leave the Forty Acres with more than $120,000 in cash prizes and invaluable advice from competition judges to support ideas that may someday change the world.

Take a look at three business competitions shining a light on new ideas and learn how UT supports entrepreneurs.


Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition

Flipped Health

The Flipped Health team poses for a picture after winning the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition on Feb. 5. .Image courtesy of McCombs School of Business

At stake: $12,000 in cash, mentoring from experts, and a spot in the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, held on campus in May and known as the "Super Bowl of Investment Competitions."

To date, the Texas and Global Venture Labs Investment Competitions have awarded more than $1.3 million in cash and prizes to entrepreneurs.

Since 1984, teams of graduate students from across the university have pitched ideas, attracted investors and propelled businesses during the annual Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition. To give students the real-life experience of raising venture capital, the teams present business plans to a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, accountants and lawyers.

"The heart of the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition is for companies being formed by graduate students to really flush out that idea," says Doug Yeager, a venture partner who helps organize the competition. "It's learning entrepreneurship through doing."

The Jon Brumley Texas Venture Labs at the McCombs School of Business hosts both the Texas and Global rounds of the investment competition, in addition to connecting the university's business, technology and legal resources to students, faculty, researchers and local entrepreneurs.

Divided into five divisions, the competition attracts business ideas from mobile software and the I.T. field to the energy sector, social entrepreneurship and consumer products.

"This is our chance to learn," says Cheryl Tulkoff, a master of science in technology commercialization student who won the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition with her team Flipped Health. "There's no textbook for pitching like this you have to be out there in the mix."

The experience is paying off, too. The companies that take advantage of the McCombs School's resources and participate in the competition often end up doing big business. During the past 10 years, new ventures at McCombs have raised more than $167 million, with 18 companies raising at least $1 million.

Here's a quick look at five of this year's competitors in the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition:

  • ŸFlipped Health is developing a better way to deliver vaccines.
  • BlackBox Trainer is a website and mobile app that provides customized workouts and meal plans.
  • LoBan allows small banks to simplify commercial and retail banking services.
  • aNomNom is a website matching graduate students for lunch based on preferred topics of conversation.
  • DraftCrunch reduces the complexity and time required to create competitive fantasy sports lineups.

[Read about the winners of this year's Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition.]


Food Challenge Prize

Food Challenge Prize

The Food Challenge Prize is an early stage business start-up competition encouraging innovation in the global food system. Image courtesy of The Food Lab.

At stake: $30,000 in cash, including $10,000 to an overall winner and a $5,000 prize to the first-place winners in each of four categories.

In its inaugural year, the Food Challenge Prize invited early-stage startups to pitch the next great ideas to improve the food chain.

A partnership between the College of Natural Sciences and the School of Human Ecology, The Food Lab is a "catalyst for scientific and cultural exploration, experimentation and innovation in the food system."

"We produce so much food already, we just need to produce better food and get it to more people at more reasonable costs," says Robyn Metcalfe, director of The Food Lab. "We're at a point where we seem to have identified the key areas that need improvement, and now people are stepping up to solve these problems."

Beginning in June of last year, about 120 teams from across the country submitted business ideas to the Food Challenge Prize in four main categories: inputs and production; processing, packaging and safety; storage and distribution; and healthy eating and nutrition.

In November judges cut the pool of applicants to 20 finalists, who then partnered with industry mentors for about 13 weeks. The top 10 teams pitched business ideas to a panel of judges during the Showcase Day on Feb. 14. Ten Acre Organics, co-founded by Lloyd Minick and Michael Hannan (below), walked away with the grand prize.

"We really got interested in this competition because it's a first step in solving world hunger," says Michael Chang, a UT chemical engineering senior who is competing with his team, Cramen, which has created a novel spice mix aimed at fighting world hunger. "We've really learned to compromise, put differences aside and focus on the goal at hand, which is to convince as many people as possible that our product is a good one. It's helped to prepare me for the real world."

Here's a quick look at five of the 20 finalists who vied for the first Food Challenge Prize:

  • SMRC uses 3-D printers to create food for NASA's deep space missions.
  • Cramen uses a cricket and algae spice mix to fight world hunger.
  • Hopper Foods' mission is to normalize eating insects with healthy and delicious products.
  • ŸRevive Foods makes healthy preserves from fruits that would otherwise go to waste.
  • Ten Acre Organics is creating model farms to replicate around the world.

Energy Technology Competition

Longhorn Energy Club

As part of Energy Week, the Energy Technology Competition for start-ups rewards the best ideas in four categories with a total of $100,000 in prizes. .Image courtesy of the Longhorn Energy Club

Don't Dread the Judge

Pitching a business idea to industry insiders can be intimidating, but their honest feedback positive or negative is invaluable for students trying to fine-tune plans.

"Talking with investors and judges has really helped us to change where our business plan is going," says Darla Hollander, an electrical engineering senior who is the CEO of Everywhere Energy, a company competing in the Energy Technology Competition. "They're the ones who say, 'This is a good idea,' or 'That could be better.'"

Judges in the three new venture competitions taking place this month hail from technology incubators, small businesses, massive corporations, foundations, and government agencies and bring years of experience and industry connections.

"We get direct access to movers and shakers because I'm a student and in these competitions," says Cheryl Tulkoff, a master of science in technology commercialization student whose team won the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition. "They'll look at our ideas with a different perspective, and then we can fill in the gaps. It's great help, and they're really gurus in the field. I feel like I've hit the lottery."

Of course, it's not always easy to hear seasoned veterans pick apart your dream idea.

"You have to have a thick skin," says Aaron Chockla, who is competing in the Energy Technology Competition with his company Lucelo Technologies. "It's all business."

At stake: $80,000 in cash prizes, plus a bundle of entrepreneurial perks, like a one-year appointment in UT's Austin Technology Incubator.

Also in its inaugural year, the Energy Technology Competition asks entrepreneurs to develop the best ideas in three energy categories: oil and gas; clean tech; and energy, water and resource efficiency.

"These problems require new ideas," says Jason Wible, a graduate student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and an officer in the Longhorn Energy Club, which co-hosts Energy Week with UT's Energy Institute. "Texas is a leading university in the world supporting new technologies in energy."

Open to students, faculty and the general startup community, the Energy Technology Competition is part of Energy Week, a weeklong conference that takes place Feb. 16-20.

"This competition is a great way to get exposure, and we're excited to network," says Aaron Chockla, managing partner of Lucelo Technologies, one of the 40 teams competing this year. "It's great to think about how what we do in the lab can impact society."

Here's a look at five teams competing in the Energy Technology Competition:

 

 

Learn more about UT Austin's entrepreneurial ecosystem:

From Idea to IPO: Entrepreneurship at UT (Know)

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