BY CATHERINE ZANDONELLA
Call it the Olympics for student entrepreneurs, or the Miss Universe Pageant for budding startups. Next week Stanford will host a global-scale conference and competition for the best student business plan.
The Stanford Global Entrepreneurs Challenge 2000 brings 20 winning teams from entrepreneurial competitions around the world to the Silicon Valley for a week of seminars, networking and, of course, friendly capitalist rivalry.
Let the E-Games begin.
Above and beyond the competition, the Global Entrepreneurs Challenge will provide the opportunity for students and educators to learn about entrepreneurship from top-tier Silicon Valley venture capitalists, consultants and professors, and from each other.
The four-day event will be held June 19-22 at the Bechtel Conference Center. Teams from nations including China, Canada, France, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Singapore and the United States will attend. Winners will be announced Wednesday, June 21.
The Global Entrepreneurs Challenge was conceived and organized by students in the Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students (BASES), an entrepreneurship organization.
But the contest isn't only about who will take home the top prize, or who will get their name and idea noticed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
"The Global Challenge's main benefit will be the educational experience associated with preparing and evaluating well-thought-out business plans," said Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering. "Engineering is at least partly very practical -- building things, testing them, seeing how they work. This competition provides some of those kinds of experiences in the business side of engineering."
Each institution's delegation consists of student entrepreneurs plus contest organizers and associated faculty. During the week, the contestants and their advisers will meet representatives from Silicon Valley venture capital firms, which seed startups, and technology "incubators" that provide structure and services that allow startups to become established their first few years.
The Global Entrepreneurs Challenge gives international delegations the opportunity to broaden their networks and their understanding of global entrepreneurship. In return, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs will see how technology and business play out in other countries.
With a budget of $350,000, excluding prizes, the Global Entrepreneurs Challenge boasts one of the largest budgets ever for a student-sponsored event.
The top prize for the contest is a complete e-business "back end" consisting of web servers, software and consulting needed to set up a business website. Donated by Hewlett-Packard Co., the prize is worth $150,000. Andersen Consulting donated $75,000 in prizes and cash.
Other sponsors include Silicon Valley venture capital firms Accel Partners and Mohr, Davidow Ventures. Sponsorship also was provided by Latin American venture capital firm netQbate Ventures, Silicon Valley Bank and incubator Wingspring. Other contributors included ONI Systems Corp. (formerly Optical Networks Inc.), North Asia's OSINTERNET, Voce Communications, Martel Communications and Stanford's Asia/Pacific Research Center.
Conference-goers will attend seminars throughout the week. Soong Moon Kang, a doctoral student in management science and engineering, led the student team to choose the speakers. "We tried to select speakers based on their expertise and ability to offer a global perspective," Kang said. "We asked the question, 'Now that these guys have a great business idea, what do they need to know next to transform this idea into a great business?'"
Among the seminar topics are how to protect your intellectual property, how to negotiate a term sheet and how to create funding partnerships. Opening remarks will be made by Stanford University president-designate John Hennessy, and a keynote speech will be made by John Doerr of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Global Entrepreneurs Challenge attendees will spend a day touring startups, venture capital firms and incubators in the Silicon Valley.
Eddy Chi, who organized the visits, said the most exciting aspect of the event is the impact it could have on students at universities around the world.
Although entry to the conference is restricted to the competing teams and their advisers, the event will start the flow of information, Chi said. "The teams, when they go back to their countries, will share what they've learned with their fellow students," said Chi. "There will be a domino effect coming from Stanford."
Global Entrepreneurs Challenge founder and chair Ted Acworth, who graduated this spring with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, said the event has great educational potential.
"The Global Challenge is an educational and networking opportunity for students from around the world. It is about getting tools you need to start a business," Acworth said.
"The students have done a really good job of putting together educational content," said Laura Breyfogle, senior associate dean of external relations in the School of Engineering. "The prize money, the planning and logistics -- it is all done in the context of a strong learning experience."
The educational bent is important to Silicon Valley sponsors as well. "A lot of people think that a successful entrepreneur just needs to have an attitude and take a lot of risks," said Brian Roddy, managing partner and co-founder of Reactivity, a company that incubates good ideas and helps them develop into companies. "It is much more than that," he said. "Entrepreneurs need to understand technology, think about what kinds of products consumers need and know what steps to take to realize their goals."
"We think the time is right and we are in the right location to do this kind of thing," said Robert Kortubash, the Global Challenge's vice president of marketing and a graduate student in management science and engineering. Kortubash worked in a Canadian venture capital firm before coming to Stanford.
But not all students have experience in running such a large production. Prakash Narayanan, the Global Challenge's 20-year-old chief financial officer and an undergraduate in industrial engineering, had never managed large sums of money before, but he obtained guidance from other BASES members and from Stanford faculty and staff. "When I received our first $50,000 check, I admit I was impressed," Narayanan said.
Stanford students are learning how to make phone calls to sponsors, solicit donations and make arrangements for conference space, audio-visual equipment, lunches, dinners, social events -- basically everything that goes into planning a good conference. BASES students convinced billion-dollar companies like Hewlett-Packard to donate prizes, speakers and money for travel scholarships.
"Many of us are spending 20 to 40 hours per week on this plus classes," said Acworth, "mainly because of the opportunity to learn these skills."
Organizing the event teaches BASES students skills they can apply to working at a small business. "This entire conference is modeled after a startup," Acworth said. "We developed a business plan and solicited startup money, and now we are going forward with it."
Acworth and his colleagues at BASES came up with the idea for the Global Entrepreneurs Challenge last summer. Stanford faculty and administration gave a nod to the conference, and Silicon Valley firms agreed to donate sponsor money.
BASES representatives hope the conference will spark success for all the competing teams, not just the winner of the competition.
"We hope to have all 20 companies start out and be successful," Acworth said. "We hope these companies will make an impact on the world by hiring 2,000 people and providing products for 10,000 people. We hope to create a machine that fuels economic growth around the world."
In the past few years, business plan competitions have been popping up faster than you can say "new-world economy."
MIT's contest dates back more than 10 years, although the University of Texas' Moot Challenge may be the oldest. Stanford, a relative upstart, has been holding an entrepreneurship challenge since 1996.
Stanford's school-wide entrepreneurs challenge, run by BASES, is first and foremost about education, Acworth said. In Autumn Quarter, BASES holds brainstorming sessions and socials where entrepreneurial types can meet and greet. During Winter Quarter, the BASES group invites Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to give workshops on how to write an executive summary, how to do market research, how to write a business plan and how to attract talented employees. "It is an incredibly valuable education," Acworth said. "You can't buy that anywhere else."
This year's winners of the Stanford Entrepreneurs Challenge, Homan Igehy and Farid Nemati, won $25,000 on May 24 for their business plan to create a startup to develop and license a new type of computer memory chip called T-RAM. They will represent Stanford in the global challenge.
The prize money counts for little compared to the real cost of starting a business, but the $25,000 purse will help a fledging business attract the attention of serious funders.
Stanford's recent entry into the world of entrepreneurial challenges hasn't stopped the students of BASES from rushing to scoop older competitions by holding a global version of the contest on a Silicon Valley-scale.
"We knew we had to do it this year, in 2000, before someone else beat us to it," Acworth said. SR
Catherine Zandonella is an
intern at Stanford News Service