As a graduate student in MTSU’s molecular bioscience program, Matthew Wright of Knoxville, Tennessee, mixed his deep knowledge of cells with his growing knowledge about sales during the 2015 MTSU Business Plan Competition.
Wright stood before a panel of five area business leaders inside the Student Union Ballroom recently to pitch his three-member team’s proposal for Salomon’s House LLC, a startup whose ambitious mission is to discover disease-curing compounds that it in turn sells to the pharmaceutical industry.
One of three teams to make it to the competition finals, Salomon’s House LLC was the winner of this year’s competition, an achievement that earned team members $7,500 in seed money to help bring their entrepreneurial idea into reality. Launched last year, the competition was a welcome opportunity for this year’s finalists and is “what changed everything” for Wright and his team.
“We’ve been working on the science — getting our protocols, getting our lab space done,” a relieved Wright said after his presentation, clutching the team’s first place plaque.
“The competition caused us to put everything — business, financials — down on paper, and I believe it’s providing a quicker route to getting this thing off the ground.”
Wright teamed with alumni Jacob Basham, a University Honors College graduate from Portland, Tennessee, and Eric Vick of Bellevue, Tennessee, who graduated last year with a doctoral degree in molecular biosciences.
“It’s a conversation we started probably three years ago, doing something like this,” said Basham, who serves as chief drug development officer for the business. “This is the first tangible thing we’ve gotten our hands on, as far as a success to where this is headed. I think it’s setting the precedent for good things to come.”
“It really focused us,” added Vick, chief science officer for the company. “… We’re going to change the world.”
Each team was represented by one spokesperson at the April 21 finals who gave detailed PowerPoint presentations on their startup company, including items such as financial projections — which reached the millions in some cases — along with overhead costs, strengths and weaknesses, and the competitive landscape.
They were then peppered with questions from a panel of area business professionals, who not only challenged some of the projections but also offered advice on how contestants could improve their business plans.
The judges, who scored the presentations on a number of criteria, included: Thom Coats, vice president of sales for software consulting company JourneyTEAM; Tim Cronin, a local social media marketing entrepreneur; Jonathan Eby, vice president of operations for classical music label and distributor Naxos of America Inc.; Pete Hendrix, entrepreneur and host of local television program “Score on Business”; and Chip Higgins, senior vice president for Pinnacle Financial Partners.
The MTSU student team representing Green Source Energy Recovery won second place and a $5,000 prize. The team consisted of environmental health and safety major Taylor Drury, a junior from Franklin, Tennessee, and three environmental science majors, all seniors: James Sherrill of Nashville, Tennessee; Symone Foster of Jackson, Tennessee; and Ryan Cunningham of Tullahoma, Tennessee.
The company’s concept involved partnering with MTSU to provide bio-methane gas to use in the university’s cogeneration facility to help power the campus. The company would essentially take organic waste from sources such as farms, landfills and wastewater treatment and convert it into biogas for commercial purposes.
The third finalist was junior Theresa Daniels of Nashville, founder of Theresa’s Twists: Pretzels with a Purpose. The nonprofit food service company’s mission is to provide job opportunities and family support to people who, like Daniels, have Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Theresa’s Twists would enable those with Asperger’s to gain valuable social and job skills and future employment.
“We really had a great opportunity to see some neat and unique business ideas presented,” said Bill McDowell, holder of the Pam Wright Chair of Entrepreneurship, which sponsored the competition. “I believe this is a great opportunity to stir entrepreneurship and innovation across campus.”
Organizers say the process allows students to enhance their learning experience, gain feedback on ideas, develop networks and expose their ideas to potential investors. Early-stage company investors, entrepreneurs and business leaders from the Midstate will judge presentations by the finalist teams.
Any enrolled MTSU student or MTSU alumnus can participate in the competition. A team can consist of one or more contestants and can include nonstudents, but each team must include at least one MTSU student or alumnus. That person is responsible for making key presentations during the course of the competition and must be included in top management for the proposed business.
After an initial screening round, participants in this year’s competition went through an entrepreneurial “boot camp” of sorts, where they were given more specifics about what’s needed in a business plan and how to put together presentations for potential stakeholders and investors.
A trade-show round was held where judges narrowed down the field to the top three entries. Mentors were assigned to the teams to help them polish their presentations and business plans for the judges’ final evaluation.
Organizers also presented secondary and specialty awards to contestants, including several funded by a grant from the Clouse-Elrod Foundation that provided a gift of $250 for each category.
— Jimmy Hart (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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