The importance of business plan competitions cannot be overstated for cash-strapped start-ups. And in a year when the SBIR program could be in for a significant change that might make it difficult for student-start-ups and early stage companies to compete for those critical dollars, business plan competitions could make all the difference in folding or building a business.
The 2012 NYS Business Plan Competition, already the largest of its kind in New York, and one of the largest collegiate business plan competitions in the country, grew nearly ten-fold in its first three years. This year, 105 competitively selected student start-ups from 25 New York universities competed for more than $150,000 in prize money and in-kind services.
Keynote speaker, Eben Bayer, CEO and co-founder of Ecovative Design, one of the Capital Region’s more recent greentech success stories in the last five years, noted that business plan competitions provided him and co-founder, Gavin McIntyre, the critical feedback they needed to advance product development, as well as to eat. “We lived off business plan competitions the first year—literally and figuratively.”
This year’s winners are no different. Prize winnings will be used from product development and optimizing platforms, to building management teams and marketing. Dick Frederick, co-founder of the Eastern New York Angel Fund, said he was “impressed with the quality of the presentations this year and the announced approach for next year. This competition will help to bridge the gap between upstate and downstate venture capital investment.”
Chris Behrens, chief marketing officer for Innovative Delivery Systems (IDS), said their first place finish in their track “is going to be a huge advantage for us, and we believe it is exactly what we needed to get off the ground.” Specifically, the company plans on purchasing receipt printers for its first few stadiums to implement IDS’ system at no cost to initial customers, and to gather data for future clients. Prize winnings are also earmarked for much needed operational expenses such as a web server, liability insurance, and marketing. Behrens said they also plan on renting an office now which they wouldn’t have been able to without the prize money.
This Year’s Winners
– Strong Arm Technologies, Inc.
– Grand Prize Winner and Winner – Health Care / Social / Non-profit Track
– Second time around was the charm for grand prize winner, Strong Arm Technologies. Last year’s second place winner, the company earned a small amount of capital to do third-party clinical testing as the judges had recommended. During this “validation,” process we learned that we were the device on the market that can change the dynamics of a lift,” said CEO Sean Petterson.
Strong Arm plans to maintain its path towards commercialization in full stride. “We are very fortunate to win the 50k because it frees up a lot of time for development that we would have been spent soliciting investors.” As a result, Petterson said the company will finalize the Strong Arm lifting safety vest through beta tests with multiple companies over the next 4 months. “These are very large partners that will be incredibly valuable first customers as our relationships develop. We will be looking for a larger ask in the late summer to gear up production to supply to those early clients.”
According to Petterson, Strong Arm will maintain its New York residence and “continue to develop relationships in target channels that can distribute and manufacture Strong Arm innovations.”
Winner – Nanotechnology / Cleantech / High Tech Track
Robotic arms are used in a multitude of automated processes these days, from car manufacturing to surgery, performing an array of gripping tasks. Designing and manufacturing a robotic arm for a specific task, however, is complex and costly. This year’s winner, SofGrip Robotics—which recently incorporated as Empire Robotics following its win—appears to have simplified the process.
According to a paper the founders authored, “The development of universal grippers…remains…challenging. Most current designs are based on the multi-fingered hand, but this approach introduces hardware and software complexities. These include large numbers of controllable joints, the need for force sensing if objects are to be handled securely without crushing them, and the computational overhead to decide how much stress each finger should apply and where.”
Empire Robotics’ design eliminates the need for sensory feedback and replaces individual fingers with a single mass of granular material which sits on top of a vacuum application like a ball. The granular material in this ball conforms to the shape of the object, and contracts quickly to pinch and hold the object. The inspiration behind their current technology came while they were exploring granular jamming for potential applications in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Programmable Matter project. The research was a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Cornell University, and iRobot Corporation.
Empire Robotics developed its robotic gripper technology over the last four years, and has only just started to bring the technology out of the lab and commercialize in the last few months. John Amend, research director, said, “The NYS BPlan Competition helped validate our plans to move forward and provided us with some really helpful money to do so.”
The company is now negotiating the terms of our technology licensing deal and preparing to submit to more competitions and apply for grant opportunities. “I think there is a good chance that Empire Robotics will stay in New York, but it is still such an early stage for us that it is difficult to say for certain.”
Winner – Information Technology / Software Track
Nathan Aleskovsky is founder an CEO of ShowCode. A software application that provides real time building code analysis for digital building models. Due to current IP issues and the nature of possible investments, Aleskovsky could not elaborate on specifics, but did say the prize money would be “used to advance development of [ShowCode’s] software.” This was ShowCode’s first appearance in the NYS BPlan Competition. The company recently placed second in the Florida Atlantic University BPlan Competition in April, where they also won a separate award for best technology innovation.
“The Entrepreneurship faculty at Syracuse University (SU) has been tremendous as well as the advisory board we have assembled, including a few faculty from other colleges at SU. And the response and feedback we have received from architecture and construction firms interested in purchasing ShowCode has been instrumental in shaping our business.”
Innovative Delivery Systems
Winner – Products / Services Track
IDS won its track for “OrdrIT,” a smartphone app that allows spectators at stadiums to order concessions and have them delivered to their seat. Customers place an order through the app which is received by the stadium on a computer, a tablet or through a receipt printer and then they deliver it to the spectator’s seat. “It’s as simple as sending a text for spectators and as easy as reading a receipt for concession stands,” explained Behrens. This was IDS’ first appearance at the NYS Business Plan Competition.
IDS credits Clarkson University with having “a huge impact” on the company, to date, which was founded in a first year business course called Introduction to Innovation & Entrepreneurship. “I got to Clarkson last fall as a 17-year old kid who knew little to nothing about business and am now the CMO of a tech start-up. I learned more from this course alone than I did from sitting through four years of high school, said Behrens.”
As any start-up knows, the entrepreneurial network is key in numerous ways. “Clarkson has handed us countless great opportunities on which we have capitalized. Most notably, our business professor introduced us to an alumnus, who invited our entire team to his firm in Charlotte, NC, to mentor us and to help break down some doors for us. We’re headed out there this month could potentially be talking to some very large clients while there.”
As far as IDS remaining a NY-based company, Behrens said, “I would love to relocate to Manhattan, but I guess we’ll just have to see where we all are when we graduate…[but] there is a very high probability we will stay in the NY area and if it seems beneficial for business, there is nowhere else we’d rather be.”
Author: Peg Zokowski loves working with and writing about entrepreneurs, innovators, and scientists. Her company, Innovators Ink™ is a communications partner working with cleantech companies and STEM initiatives. She is passionate about highlighting the entrepreneurs, innovators, and scientists – especially women – who are changing the energy and education landscapes, and who are often left off the front page. From Stories To Strategies™ Innovators Ink helps clients disrupt the sound bite news stream and develop their brand with clear messaging and engaging content.