By Deanna C. White
California has always been the place where people come to open their minds, jettison routine expectations, and follow their dreams.
Student teams from twenty-five schools vied for a total of $230,000 in prize money and had the chance to develop connections to venture capital firms and to glean advice on their start-ups from real-world entrepreneurs and investors at the 2013 competition.
"California Dreamin' has become the premier university pitch competition including all of the top business schools in the West," said Richard Sudek, PhD, director of the Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Chapman University.
The event, which was held April 26 and 27, featured two competitions: an Investor Pitch and a ninety-second Fast Pitch.
Students presented business plans that ran the gamut from high-tech medical industry start-ups to "luxury performance" undergarments for men. A sampling of entries included:
- Arizona State University's Pollen-Tech – a high-tech pollination spray that would allow farmers to control the pollination of their crops.
- Pepperdine University's Uncorked! – a hip new game of "wine tasting, wit, and wordplay" for the urbane twenty-five- to-forty-year-old crowd.
- University of Oklahoma's Apollo Psychiatry – an online platform that mental health care professionals can use to provide fast, effective mental health care to the vastly underserved mental health care market.
- Chapman University's SWAV Apparel – the mission is to provide men with luxury undergarments, such as underwear, socks, and undershirts, in the hopes of becoming the trusted choice for men's undergarments.
The University of Houston took home first place in the Investor Pitch competition for its Imalysis business plan. The team received $60,000 in prize money ($30,000 in cash, $30,000 in equity) and $1,000 in Amazon Web Services credit for the win.
Imalysis is a medical software firm that saves lives by helping consumers analyze and track illnesses online through a patented algorithm. Imalysis focuses on catching illness in the first stage of development by empowering the most important people in the health care system – the doctor and the patient – according to California Dreamin' officials.
Making the "Perfect Pitch"
Whether you're pitching a new business idea in a formal competition like California Dreamin' or you're an aspiring entrepreneur trying to get your idea afloat, Richard Sudek, PhD, director of the Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Chapman University and angel investor, offers the following key rules to achieving the "perfect pitch" when selling your business idea:
- Solve a "big pain." It's important that your idea is oriented toward a fast-growth business, not a lifestyle business, to have potential. This is a business that will ramp to millions of dollars in a few years.
- Identify the customer and describe the potential of the market.
- Have a competitive advantage like a patent or proprietary process so your idea can't be copied once it enters the marketplace.
- Show the passion and commitment behind your plan in your pitch.
- Have a reasonable exit path so investors can see an eventual return on their money. Most companies exit by being purchased.
- If you can grow quickly, have a competitive advantage, and prove there's a market for your product so you can prove someone will buy your company.
Houston team member Roger Seward said the genesis of Imalysis was born out of the research done at the University of Houston by Dr. George Zouridakis, who envisioned a way for consumers and medical professionals alike to detect melanoma more effectively, cheaply, and quickly.
"Our team came upon his research and approached him," Seward said "We were offered the opportunity to marry his scientific vision with our business expertise to help save lives."
The University of Utah won first place, garnering $5,000 in prize money plus $1,000 of Amazon Web Services credit, in the Fast Pitch competition for its 3PDx business concept, which offers iTest. According to competition officials, iTest decentralizes medical testing by allowing users to control an inexpensive medical diagnostic device with a smartphone. iTest provides objective results in minutes and can be performed anytime, anywhere, and by anyone, similar to "a medical lab that fits in your pocket."
But according to Sudek, who is also a former entrepreneur himself, an active angel investor, and Chairman Emeritus of Tech Coast Angels, the real boon of the California Dreamin' competition lies in its mission to "simulate the real-world process of starting up a business and seeking start-up funding, while providing constructive feedback to all competing teams to help them achieve their goals."
That feedback is all the more valuable to participants, Sudek said, because it comes from actual entrepreneurs and investors – the same people who could one day provide the very "real-world" money students need to take their business plans from the drafting board to the street.
In addition, the Investor Pitch finalists get a private screening with two top-tier venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Menlo Ventures.
"This competition was one of the best university competitions I've been part of. We're excited to look deeper into some of the teams for potential investment," said Matt McCall, a partner at New World Ventures.
"The thing that sets this competition apart is that it's not meant to be an academic exercise. All the judges are investors, that's a key differentiator," Sudek said. "One of my missions is to connect students to equity . . . to bring in investors to evaluate their ideas."
That's exactly what happened for the winners of the 2012 California Dreamin' competition, a team from Brigham Young University in Utah whose plan for their business, Estify, netted them $50,000 of equity financing from a California Dreamin' judge after the competition, in addition to the $50,000 they won for first place. Additionally, Estify has closed another $750,000 in financing since the competition.
Today, Estify, a Cloud-based software solution provider for the collision repair industry, is a working company based in Venice, California – thanks mainly, says Estify cofounder Jordan Furniss, to their participation in the California Dreamin' competition.
"Without the California Dreamin' competition, we probably wouldn't be in business. We wouldn't have made this transition to California. We would probably just be struggling to raise money in another state," Furniss said. "I really can't overstate the quality of judges we met in the competition. The caliber of people we met there allowed us to be able to pull together what we did our first year."
It's a model for success that University of Houston team members say they hope to emulate as well.
"This win means an incredible opportunity for our team to utilize the mentorship we gained at the competition and the possibilities with this software to take Imalysis to market," Seward said. "The competition really awakened an openness to evolution as an aspect of eventual success. The judges and feedback were so critical to informing and refining our concept. As entrepreneurs, this mind-set is incredibly important."