Utah Entrepreneurial Challenge attracts inventive business hopefuls

The 2004 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge is underway and applicants are eyeing the $40,000 first-place prize.

In its fifth year, the competition presents an excellent opportunity to the most innovative entrepreneurs. This year’s competition began with more than 120 business proposals and is open to groups from any of the 13 universities and colleges in Utah.

Ten finalists will be selected to make a presentation before a judging panel, after which one team will walk home with the $40,000 award, and the revered title of entrepreneur.

The prize money is generated through fund-raising efforts coordinated by members of the challenge.

“We go out and raise [money] from private donations and corporate donations. The students go out and raise the money to run these programs,” said Leonard Black, director of the Utah Entrepreneurial Center. “It costs about $150,000 to run this program now. And that’s to do all of our advertising and promotion as well as prize money.”

Illustrating the competitive nature of the competition, teams were unwilling to divulge any specifics of their business plans.

Mike Gleeson, a former U student participating in the challenge, said that teams hesitate to talk about their plans to avoid undermining their chance to win.

“There is no information you can get from any other teams, so we don’t really know what we’re competing against, and we don’t want them to know either,” he said.

The challenge is a nine month-long competition that begins with a kickoff meeting each August, according to Ryan Sundquist, who heads public relations for the event.

“We take students through the process of different accounting, marketing and legal forums and also put them in business writing forums to teach them the basics of a business plan,” he said.

The first phase of the challenge ends in February. When it does, each team must draft and submit an executive summary outlining the most important and attractive features of their business while simultaneously demonstrating its financial viability.

Applicants are evaluated by a group of 12 judges based on five components of a business plan-the company, product, marketing strategy, as well its as management and financial plan.

Of the more than 120 initial proposals, the top 25 applicants move on to the second round and one step closer to the $40,000 grand prize.

Although the challenge is competitive, altogether the individuals involved agree that the experience has been an exceptional educational tool in developing business skills.

“It’s been a good experience as far as writing business plans and gaining real life business experience…it’s been very positive,” said Lloyd Roberts, a Weber State University student.

Beyond business experience, however, the challenge also provides team members with an invaluable insight to the manner in which the business world operates, Sundquist said.

“The challenge not only provides students with fundamental knowledge of business planning, but also portrays the significance of professional networking,” he said.

Currently, 25 teams have qualified as semifinalists and are now paired with a mentor from the local business community who has donated his or her time.

Brent Edington, one the mentors in this year’s competition, said the role is important in helping teams discover what their needs and deficiencies in the business plan are.

“I try to help them understand what it takes to start a new business. Sometimes you have to remind them of what reality is,” Edington said.

After the teams have been paired with mentors, they must formally propose a business plan detailing the explicit facets of their proposition.

The eligibility rules for the challenge state only that each team’s primary contact person must be a full-time college or university student in Utah, according to the event’s literature. There are no restrictions regarding the background, age or numbers of other team members.

The challenge began in 1999 at the insistence of U business students.

“Four years ago, there was a couple of students that asked, ‘Why don’t we have a business plan writing competition like MIT does?'” Black said. He said the students took their idea to the dean of the business school, and the competition was born.

In its brief existence, Black says the challenge has been successful in generating and assisting business start-ups. He notes that previous winners of the competition have moved on to operate profitable businesses.

“Tim Hunt, who won a couple of years ago, is from the University [of Utah] and he’s got a company that provides interpreters programs to be better, more efficient and faster at what they do. He just recently signed a multimillion dollar contract,” Black said.

He also mentioned previous winner Jon Butler, who won with his idea of creating an ATM-like machine that burns audio content onto a compact disc. Butler’s company is called Mediaports.

v”They have just secured multimillion-dollar funding. They’re going to have a big press release in just a couple of weeks announcing the funding they have put into place,” Black said. “We can point to our past winners and say, ‘Look at them, they have done it, they’re out there doing their thing.'”

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