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Co-Winners of $50K Competition Named

Photo Courtesy MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition
Michael M. Bryzek '98 (center), founder of Volunteer Community Connection, speaks with MIT Corporation Chairman Alexander V. d'Arbeloff '49 (right), at the Deans' reception prior to the MIT $50K final awards ceremony Thursday night. Bryzek was one of the $50K co-grand prize winners.

By Aileen Tang
Staff Reporter

"If the companies founded by MIT graduates and faculty formed an independent nation, the revenues produced by the companies would make that nation the 24th largest economy in the world," noted a report prepared by the BankBoston economics department entitled "MIT:The Impact of Innovation."

The annual MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition has done more than propel the innovative trends that have risen out of MIT. In its nine-year history, the competition has facilitated over 30 companies with more than $180 million in aggregate market value and created more than 500 job opportunities.

Last Thursday night, the final awards ceremony marked the grand finale to this year's competition when Direct Hit and Volunteer Community Connection were announced as co-grand-prize-winners, with Carsoft as the runner-up.

Other 1998 $50Kfinalists included: Akamai Technologies, developer of global hosting service; Silicon Test, provider of probe cards for semiconductor chip testing; and, an Internet-based, full service, wedding gift registry system.

Keynote speaker at the awards ceremony was William A. Porter '67, chairman and founder of the ETrade Group, Inc. Porter emphasized the importance of entrepreneurialism. "It's the accomplishment of doing it that really counts,"he said. "There's just no shortage of things to be done in our society for the benefit of society."

For the first time in the history of the competition, grand prizes of $30,000 each were awarded to the two co-winners, while $10,000 went to the runner-up. The competition normally awards $30,000to one grand prize winner and $10,000each to two runners-up.

This year's cash prizes do not quite add up to $50K, explained Sally A Shepard G, the lead organizer of the competition. The judges came to a deadlock on the grand prize, she said. "We were kind of perplexed by that, so the committee decided to announce two grand prize winners."

"In the Nobel Prize and things of that kind [when there are co-winners], it's customary to split the prize," said David T. Morgenthaler '40, who announced the winners. "But no, that would never do for MIT With the help of an extremely generous donor, who absolutely insisted that he or she must remain anonymous, there is a full first prize for each of the two contestants," he said.

Competition builds process

The $50K Competition hopes to achieve more than just a successful contest. "The judges take [the $50Kmotto] of creating tomorrow's leading firms to heart. We want to encourage firms that, looking back ten years from now, would have either revolutionized the industry or become really viable," Shepard said.

This year'scompetition aimed to build the alumni network and establish the Institute as a leader in entrepreneurism. In March, the organizing team hosted the first-ever alumni reunion and$50Kglobal startup workshop.

The final awards ceremony last Thursday demonstrated the strength of the MIT alumni network, which an Inc. Magazine article called the "MITmafia." The three announcers had all been through the process themselves once and were willing to act as role models for this year's contestants.

Krisztina Holly '89 and Michael P. Cassidy '85 won the competition back when the prize was the $10Kin 1991 with Stylus Innovations, which was sold in 1996 for $12.8 million. She announced that they will give back the $10Kto this year's first runner-up.

Ronjon Nag SM '91, a general manager of the Motorola Lexicus Division, was also a 1991 participant. His company, Lexicus, was acquired by Motorola, and Nag became "the fastest MIT alumni to make it to the cover of Fortune Magazine after graduation."

The third winner announcer was David T. Morgenthaler '40 of Morgenthaler Ventures. He was the recipient of the National Venture Capitalist Association Lifetime Achievement Award. He and his wife have been key sponsors of the $50Kprogram for five years.

"Today, people are really thinking entrepreneurially, which is a relatively new concept," Porter said. "There's a great deal of capital available to support such endeavors. I think it's great for Americans and mankind in general to have that kind of opportunity."

VCC shocked by victory

"We're just completely shocked. We are a non-profit organization," said the members of the Volunteer Community Connection upon winning the $30,000 grand prize. They have a unique presence in this year's $50K, being the only non-profit organization among the finalists, and one of two such teams in the entire competition.

When "we made it to the finals, we realized that they weren't going to exclude us on the basis that we're non-profit," said VCC's Director of Business Development, Jonathan Allen '96.

"It's just amazing that they actually considered a non-profit plan,"said Richard Sanford '96, VCC's Director of Agency Services.

VCC matches volunteers with non-profit organizations based on the volunteers' interests and concerns. By developing an online search engine, VCChopes to provide opportunities for an estimated 1.25 million American volunteers and a 95 percent savings on recruitment mailings for non-profit agencies.

Other members of VCC include Michael Bryzek '99, director sales and marketing, Oumi Mehrotra, chief technology officer, Emily Sandberg, director of the MIT Public Service Center, and Mark Y. Sun '00, volunteer coordinator.

Direct Hit to donate prize money

DirectHit, the co-grand prize winner, provides a patent-pending software that will "increase search engine performance by 300 to 1,000 percent." The product ranks search results based on what people who used similar queries actually chose to give more targeted search results.

Gary Cullis, inventor of the idea, is a 3rd year Harvard Law School student specializing in patent law. "It's a simple idea that got its genesis in the capital market the way stock prices are set based on the buying and selling equity of people accessing the market," Cullis said. "You can view us kind of like a market confirmation, where people accessing these search engines basically determine their own [relevancy] ranking."

Cassidy will act as the CEOof DirectHit. "This is entrepreneurship, it's capitalism I love it. People go in, work hard, and get rewarded for it. The competition just speeds everything up," he said.

Steven Yang G created the prototype for Direct Hit and may postpone obtaining his Master of Engineering degree because he won the competition. "All my plans have changed," he said, "it's the greatest opportunity of my life to date."

Upon being announced the winner, Cassidy declared that Direct Hit will donate its $30,000 prize to the other finalists. The company has already raised $1.3 million in venture money, so "I think it's the right thing to do to let the other people have the prize money so they can get started just like [Stylus Innovations] did eight years ago," Cassidy said.

This year's $50Krunner-up, Carsoft is headed by Chief Executive Officer Charles Myers G, Chief Technology Officer Diego Borrego G, and Chief Operations Officer Morten Gunnarshaug G.

Carsoft designs and manufactures software automotive diagnostic tools with the slogan, "software that lets you know what your car is thinking." This information is in the same format as those used by car mechanics today. "Consumers have the ability to do their own estimates on their car" before they take it to maintenance or repair, Gunnarshaug said.

Winning the $10,000 cash prize "has given us a great experience, great contact, and it will be a very good record when we start the company," Gunnarshaug said. Developers are currently working on the prototype of this new product.