Harvard Business School's New Venture Competition Announces Winners

Thursday May 2, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Contributor, VentureFizz

A huge crowd gathered at Harvard Business School’s Burden Auditorium for the school’s annual business plan/pitch contest on Tuesday. Dubbed the HBS New Venture Competition, the event was one of the more spectacular entrepreneur contests held this year. It is certainly one of the most prestigious of the local university startup events.

As alumni winner in the “Social Enterprise Track,” Mary Weitzel of Yaso Biotechnology commented, “There are universities all throughout the country doing these types of events, but this is The Best of them all.”

Weitzel’s company won one of the two major awards in the alumni category. Her company, Yaso Biotech, has created a “female-controlled contraceptive” that, in addition to preventing unplanned pregnancies, also stops the contraction of HIV and other STD’s. Weitzel was shocked that Yaso won the $50K prize over some of the more tech-centric competitors, saying, “I didn’t think they would fund a drug gig.”

Additionally, another healthcare focused company, Vaxess Technologies, won the “Business Track” award and $50K in the alumni category. Founded by Michael Schrader, Vaxess, which uses silk-derived proteins to stabilize vaccines without refrigeration, was last year’s “Business Venture Track” winner in the student category.

Schrader said that the company is going to use the prize money to complete some of the studies that are underway on their product and to bring together the teams working on the project in various locales in Boston. After winning two years in a row, he had an interesting perspective on the difference between the student and alumni competitions. Schrader said, “It was interesting going from the student competition last year to the alumni competition this year. It seemed like the student competition is based on who has a good plan.” He added that, “The alumni competition is about who has shown the successful execution of that business plan.”

Most of the crowd seemed more enthused by the pitches and competition of the student venture projects. This year, the HBS New Venture Competition added a new $2,000 prize for “Crowd Favorite,” which was decided by using instant polling mobile site Pigeonhole Live. After the live vote, Wave Hospitality won the “Social Venture” crowd favorite and Tauros Engineering won in the “Business” category.

The competition in both student venture categories for the $50K grand prize was filled with many impressive companies including wedding registry disruptor Astoria Road and recent Startup Weekend winner Sensible Baby.

In the end, two companies with impressive visions for change won the student awards.

In the “Social Venture Track,” Bluelight, led by Jon Ikeda and Manoah Koletty, won the student award. Ikeda and Koletty founded the company with Mustafa Khalifeh, who is already in Jordan beginning the early stages of their project that aims to empower women and the poor in the Middle East with creatively-financed mobile phones. The prize money will allow Ikeda and Koletty to head to Jordan in June to “iterate the product, build a network, and learn from potential customers” as Koletty explained.

The basic premise behind Bluelight is to find a way to allow women and lower class individual to afford mobile technologies that they could pay for through a microfinance-informed layaway program. The layaway plan creates a go-around for prohibitions on debt and usury that is part of Sharia Law.

Surprised by the win, Ikeda said, “This is going to be truly transformative for us.” Bluelight is hoping to raise a $500K round in the near future and is planning on launching in Jordan early in 2014.

The winner of the “Business Track” award in the student category, Adrian Ross’s Tauros Engineering, was so surprised by the company’s victory that it took awhile for presenter Steve Papa’s announcement to sink in. After the excitement of being named the “Crowd Favorite,” Ross, the founder of the bridge scour detecting company, said he couldn’t even hear what Papa was saying.

The $50K prize money will greatly help Tauros, which is currently headquartered in Ross’s dorm room. The company plans to expand its prototype distribution for their new patent pending technology for detecting erosion under bridges.

Like many of the winners at the HBS New Venture Competition, Ross was surprised by his company’s win. “It’s great to have this recognition,” he said. “I already believed in the business and we are going to make America safer by securing its bridges.”

Dennis Keohane is a teacher, journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.

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