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50K Kickoff Begins Despite Recent Woes

By Harold Fox

Noted entrepreneur and visionary Raymond C. Kurzweil ’70 gave an inspiring keynote speech in Building E51’s Wong Auditorium on wednesday, officially kicking off MIT’s annual $50K Entrepreneurship Competition.

In his address, the Lemelson prize winner and Kurzweil Technologies founder highlighted the importance of innovation in a society where technology improves at an exponential rate. The auditorium was packed past capacity with eager future business leaders undaunted by terrorist attacks and a floundering economy.

Kurzweil began on a somber note, referring to the World Trade Center bombings. While technology could empower the creative urges of humanity, he said, it could just as easily empower its destructive ones. He then took a more optimistic tone as he displayed a diverse range of technology indicators showing everything from computing power to genetic sequencing improving at an exponential rate.

“It’s going to be a century marked by innovation and entrepreneurship. More and more of our economy will be devoted to applying these new technologies.”

50K aims to breed success

The $50K competition is a student-run organization whose goal is to “create tomorrow’s leading firms,” said Michael Parduhn G, the competition’s organizer.

A team, which consists of four to six people, must include at least one full or part-time MIT student. In late February, each group submits an executive summary to the panel of judges. Those deemed most promising advance to the semifinal round, where they are asked to submit a more detailed business plan. The best of the semifinalists are then submitted to the finals. The winning team receives a cash prize of $30,000, and the next two runners-up receive $10,000.

The $50K is not just an academic exercise. Past finalists have included Akamai Technologies, C-Bridge Internet Solutions, and net.Genesis. “Over a dozen companies were founded from last year and are in negotiations for funding,” said Parduhn.

Even though the economic climate for technology companies is much tougher than it was in the past, the event still draws a crowd. One hundred and thirty-five teams submitted executive summaries last year, and organizers expect an equal number this year.

“There is always a baseline of entrepreneurial activity. The dot-coms caused a blip. Now we have returned to the baseline,” said Parduhn. “There’s millions of dollars [in capital] out there. If you have a real business, you can survive.” Kurzweil was optimistic about the prospects for good startup companies.

“Despite the manic depressive trends of Wall Street, technology continues to grow exponentially... When I started Kurzweil Music in 1974, there was $20 million in venture capital spent over the whole year. Now that much can be spent on a single deal,” he said.

Leading up to the $50K in the Spring is the 1K in the Fall. Teams enter an executive summary in one of ten business categories, and the winner from each category will receive $1000. The 1K gets teams and ideas flowing early, and it is a good opportunity for teams to have their ideas carefully reviewed by the same experts who will judge the $50K.

Opportunity without risk

The $50K aims to give its participants everything they need to know to start a company. It holds weekly panel meetings with industry experts and hosts dinners to facilitate team formation.

“It’s an opportunity for students to create an entrepreneurial venture and put your whole heart into it,” said Alvin Graylin SM ’00, founder of iCompass inc, a semifinalist from 2000. “It’s an opportunity to be exposed but not at risk.”

Graylin formed his entire team from the networking events sponsored by the $50K. “It allows you to meet highly qualified people you would not have otherwise come in contact with. It brings together the business community and the engineering school.”

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