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$50K Competition Holds First Workshop of Year

By Lauren E. LeBon

STAFF REPORTER

Aspiring entrepreneurs from MIT and the outside community gathered in Walker Memorial for the first major event of the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition on Wednesday evening. A panel of alumni from the competition advised this year’s hopefuls on how to build a viable team and shared the stories of their companies.

Competition entrants will use meetings like the one on Wednesday night to make contacts, find potential team members, and shape ideas.

“It helps for networking, and gives food for thought,” said Akshay Mohan G, a first-year graduate student at the Media Lab. “They’re helpful to introduce you to a social circle with your interests. As time progresses, you will remember these people.”

Mohan hopes to participate in a project that will develop low-cost technology with widespread applications.

Panel members offered different suggestions as to the direction of this year’s competition. Five years ago, during the dot-com boom, a majority of entries were Internet-related. Since then, entries in biotechnology have fared well in the competition.

“Science-based plans will continue to dominate the competition,” said Richard P. Kivel, CEO of Molecularware and 1999 $50K winner. He said that the medicine will remain a competitive category. However, Kivel said that social and developmental area is a new source for potential projects.

Yonald Chery SM ’88, whose company, Virtual Ink, won a $10K prize in 1997, said that ideas involving energy and fuel sources would be especially relevant in the future. “It could radically change the industry and be quite fundable,” Chery said. He added that most successful entries have a broad positive impact on society at large.

Economy has little effect on $50K

Despite the recent downturn of the economy this past year, competition sponsors and entrants have not been dissuaded from participating.

“It’s a scary time to get funding,” said Ted Selker, a professor at the Media Lab and a $50K competition mentor. He added, “It’s a good time to start a company.”

“From an overall economic standpoint, this is a great time to [start a company]. There’s plenty of money out there, and no one’s spending it,” he said.

“You can get people with real experience to join you in the early stages,” Selker said.

The economy “is not hurting entrepreneurship,” Kivel said. He said that now businesses must be built on fundamentals. Business projects must think long-term and plan for profitability sooner.

Sponsorship for the contest has also not been affected, said Christopher Bauserman G, a graduate student at the Sloan School of Management. He said that sponsors recognize the positive impact that $50K Competition winners have on the community, and as a result, retention of sponsors remains high.

In order to further guarantee funding for the competition, a $50K Competition endowment is being formed.

Turnout higher than expected

The event Wednesday night drew much larger crowds than anticipated, said Timo Somervo, the events team leader for the competition. He estimated that 150 people attended the session, more than last year. Attendants included students from Harvard Business School, Babson College, and MIT undergraduate and graduate programs, including the Sloan School of Management.

“There should be many more plans to enter the competition this fall,” Somervo said. A preliminary estimate of submissions for this year is 120 to 130, up from last year’s 100.

“There’s a lot of energy this year,” said Julie A. Smith G, communications team leader for the competition.

The competition organizers attribute the high interest to different factors.

Somervo pointed out that this year’s events have been advertised more.

Smith said that many students are thinking seriously about startup companies at a time when jobs are less plentiful. Specifically, she noted an increase in interest in entrepreneurship at Sloan. She added that there are many more graduate students who have been involved with startups that failed three to five years ago.

Contest in its 14th year

The MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition began in 1990 as the $10K Competition. The event was a collaboration between the MIT Entrepreneurs Club and the Sloan New Ventures Association to bring together the ideas and expertise of engineering and business students.

In 1996, the $10K Competition became the $50K Competition.

The entries are judged by a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and professionals. The competition has generated over 60 companies, with a total worth of over $10.5 billion.

During the fall term, $1K “warm-up” teams will discuss ideas and strategies. Then, in Spring 2003, $50K teams will form. The $50K Competition offers $30,000 to the winning team and two $10,000 prizes to the runners-up. The prizes will be awarded on May 14, 2003.