Building on a Culture of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurial Activity Increases During Economic Downturns

Luke Pinkerton came to Georgia Tech for his MBA from University of Michigan with a patent in his suitcase. In April as team leader of Torex International, Pinkerton and his fellow MBA students with a strong mix of engineering and non-engineering backgrounds, won $250,000 and placed third at the Carrot Capital Competition in New York. The venture capital firm organizes this competition seeking viable business plans in which to invest.

Torex has licensed the technology that Pinkerton helped to develop while at Michigan, and Pinkerton is named on the patent there. The technology is a reinforcement fiber for concrete. Beams constructed with the Torex fiber exhibit up to five times the strength of beams constructed with existing fiber reinforcement materials. The technology has incredible market relevance now with increasing homeland security concerns, and it is environmentally friendly because it is made from scrap material from the tire industry. These two features were key to the Carrot Capital competition judges deciding to invest in this business.

"We learned something each time we competed," said Pinkerton. "We ended up revising the plan based on each competition's judges feedback. Some of the best feedback we got, however, was the negative feedback. This information really helped us refine the plan and hone in on the best strategy."

At the Georgia Tech Business Plan competition, Torex placed third and received $2,500 in funding. Also, the judges felt the venture had such strong investment potential, they awarded them a $45,000 package of legal, financial accounting, and graphic design services, which allowed Torex to improve their plan in time for the Carrot Capital competition. The extra investment definitely paid off.

Increasing Entrepreneurial Activity

Georgia Tech's business school, the DuPree College of Management, is building a culture of entrepreneurship not only for its MBA and undergraduate students but also for the entire Georgia Tech campus and the Atlanta community.

For years the College's faculty has specialized in entrepreneurship, but about three years ago, students in the Georgia Tech Entrepreneur Club launched the first Georgia Tech Business Plan Competition and invited would-be entrepreneurs from across the campus to participate. That first year was so successful, that the College was able to make the competition an annual event with the financial sponsorship of alumnus Leland Strange of Intelligent Systems.

To assist these entrepreneurial dreams, the College organizes a series of workshops each year covering the vital aspects of writing a business plan including financing, intellectual property, legal issues, marketing, and more and encourages competitors to use these resources in fine-tuning their business ideas. This year's competition had more university-wide teams than in the past, and the competition is proving to be an excellent launching point for strong business plans. This year for the first time, an all-undergraduate team made it the final round.

Each year the entrants to the Georgia Tech Business Plan Competition have gotten stronger, and more teams are invited to participate in national competitions. This year two teams -- Advanced Audio and Torex International -- won at major national business plan competitions with substantial cash awards.

Many of the most competitive teams start in the New Venture Creation course taught in the fall by Professor Pat Dickson. Dickson coaches several teams as well. In the course composed of half MBA and half-non management graduate students, Dickson encourages the students to form teams with a mix of majors.

"I tell my students that cross-disciplinary teams tend to do better," said Dickson. "It's important to have that mix of perspectives and strengths."

Taking a different path, Advanced Audio, a team composed of all MBA students, two of which have Master's degrees in engineering from Georgia Tech, excelled at the prestigious, national academic-based competition called Venture Challenge hosted annually by San Diego State College. Advanced Audio won the grand prize of $15,000 and an additional $1,000 for the Golden Phone Award for the best sales pitch over the phone.

"Many of the teams at these competitions are driven by a single visionary individual," says Trace Hawkins, vice president of marketing, Advanced Audio and Georgia Tech MBA student. "Our team is driven by a single vision, but four distinct and equally competent individuals."

Advanced Audio's technology came out of Georgia Tech's VentureLab, which assists Georgia Tech faculty interested in commercializing their technology. The technology is the first all digital microphone for hearing aids, providing enhanced sensitivity and improved power consumption over today's microphones. This technology will require a longer gestation period before it is ready to be commercialized compared to Torex, according to Dickson.

In addition to winning Venture Challenge, the Advanced Audio team placed fourth at the New Venture Championship hosted by the University of Oregon and second in the Georgia Tech competition.

Next year, Dickson anticipates expanding the business plan competition by hosting two major competitions at DuPree's new home in Technology Square. Next year the Georgia Bowl usually held at the University of Georgia will take place at Georgia Tech, and Dickson is finalizing plans to host one of the regional semi-finals of a competition organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Future of Competitions Grows

The DuPree College is now planning a unique international, technology-focused competition for spring 2004. Teams from universities from around the world will be invited to compete in the first Global Technology Commercialization and Business Plan competition slated for April.

"There are over 100 business plan competitions in the U.S., about 50 in Europe, 20 or so in Asia, and a handful in Latin America," says Nick Voigt, assistant to the dean for Global Entrepreneurship Programs and former executive with Hewlett-Packard. "One or two boast an international flavor, but none are focused exclusively on technology. DuPree's competition will be unique in being both international and technology-specific."

This niche suits DuPree and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech has the expertise, reputation, and credibility in this space, so it's appropriate to launch a competition focused on commercializing technology and entrepreneurship.

Why launch a new competition in the current economy? "Entrepreneurship is more prevalent in a bad economy than in a good," says Voigt. People who've thought of starting their own business often decide to take the plunge when their careers are interrupted.

Voigt leads the effort to recruit universities to submit teams to the competition and to sign on sponsors. The ideal schools to participate fit three criteria - have a technology emphasis, a business school, and a campus business plan competition. Georgia Tech's international campuses in France and Singapore are excellent resources for recruiting universities overseas.

All this competitive entrepreneurial activity began three years ago when a group of committed students in the Georgia Tech Entrepreneur Club decided to launch the first campus competition. Today, the College encourages and supports these ventures and works to strengthen Georgia Tech's culture of entrepreneurship.