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2013 Wharton Business Plan Competition Winners Announced; Previous Participants and Competition Organizers Share Their Thoughts On The Competition’s Value to Wharton Students and Future Entrepreneurs

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Venkat Jonnala and Jean-Mathieu Chabas Embrace After Being Crowned WBPC Winners

The inspirations and motivations of those pursuing places in top MBA programs are many. For some, the goal is to further careers in existing business institutions by gaining additional knowledge and skills that will propel their professional paths to the highest echelons of management. For others, the main goal is to develop the insights and relationships necessary to create their own ventures, and to foster the growth and success of said ventures once they have completed their MBA studies. There are many other circumstances that might spark the passion for a b-school education, but this afternoon and evening the latter entrepreneurial mindset was on full display during the final Wharton Business Plan Competition (WBPC) event.

Held in the auditorium of Jon M. Huntsman Hall, the day began with the eight finalists providing ten-minute presentations followed by ten minutes of questions and answers with a panel of expert judges. This group included David A. Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder of Karlin Asset Management, Inc.; Maxine Gowen, President and CEO of Trevena Inc.; Richard Perlman, Founder and Executive Chairman of ExamWorks Group Inc.; and Rich Riley, former Executive Vice President, Americas, of Yahoo! Inc. Among the “Great Eight” were Wharton MBA and EMBA students, as well as members of UPenn’s larger student population, including one freshman, two seniors, and multiple Penn Medical School students. Business ideas ranged from online solutions to buying childcare products in Southeast Asia to a new, non-invasive method of treating rheumatoid arthritis. 

To get to Venture Finals and present their respective business plans in front of the judges’ panel, the teams went through four competition stages. While similar business plan competitions are held over the course of just a few days, this was the culmination of eight months of hard work. In fact, Clear Admit checked in with past winners of the competition, an early round judge, and the leader of Wharton’s overall Entrepreneurship Program to learn more about the WBPC’s structure and impact. Many of those interviewed commented on how Wharton’s longer format provides participants with the opportunity for educational reality checks and feedback from a wide range of judges and competition contributors, even for those who don’t make it to the finals.

Emily Cieri, current Managing Director of the Wharton Entrepreneurship program, described the opening round as being a safe environment for all Penn students to begin exploring their entrepreneurial ideas: “The beginning stage is really open to the whole university. Any student can participate. There are no barriers to entry. In that first phase students can submit multiple ideas and get feedback on all of them. The lack of barriers allows us to capture a pretty large and diverse range of ideas and participants.” This first optional “advisory” stage allows interested parties to begin the process of fine-tuning their idea in preparation for the first competitive round of the WBPC. Davis Smith ’11, whose business—baby.com.br—came in third in the 2011 WBPC and tied for first in Harvard’s New Venture Competition, contrasted the two competitions. “I was blown away by Wharton’s competition,” he said. “It wasn’t just a week-long thing. It was a year-long event. There were multiple levels of feedback, which included a lot of mentoring and coaching, and events to help people refine or think of ideas, connect with mentors, and develop the skills to write a business plan in a clear concise way. While at HBS? It was basically just show up. Also Wharton’s structure led to more teams competing. I think over 200-250 teams submitted ideas to Wharton the year I competed. At HBS the total was more like 75.”

Over 200 individuals volunteer as judges for the competition’s multiple rounds, providing the opportunity for students to access a wide range of industry expertise and experience.  Rohan Deuskar, a winning team member of the 2011 competition praised the value the competition’s incremental stages had for his business, Stylitics, as well as the opportunities it created to interact with a wide variety of industry insiders throughout the judging process. The progressive stages “forced us to be structured in our thinking and to begin anticipating the questions we would get from potential investors,” Deuskar said. “The competition was a safe forum for us to receive feedback on the quality of our initial answers.” Participating in the competition also exposed the Stylitics concept to a number of judges who thought the idea had potential, and whose connections to other relevant industry leaders directly led to initial funding and investments for Deuskar and his team.

Former contestants had differing views on what stage of the process was the most challenging for them. Some said that while the final round had its own intensity, it was the second to last round that caused them the most anxiety. Eric Heil, whose business, RightCare Solutionswon the 2012 WBPC, focused on the time limits of the third phase of the competition and how they influenced his team’s pitch approach: “Getting our idea and presentation to a point where it was succinct and relatable in five minutes or less was a challenge. But having the opportunity to take the time to distill and articulate our vision was a good challenge to go through.” Davis Smith agreed, explaining that the second to the last round stuck out as the most challenging for him and his team. “There were a good number of judges on the panel. A lot more judges than in the final round, and about 25 teams competing for 8 spots. Judges were pretty aggressive in their questioning. They weren’t afraid to make you look bad. In the final round, in front of a more diverse audience, judges were nicer.”

Natasha and Chris Ashton, competition winners in 2003 for their pet insurance business Petplan, elaborated on the importance of communication while saying that the finals were the stage that caused them the most anxiety. “Each stage was challenging in their own rights but for us the final stage was most challenging. At that point it’s not just a great business plan or idea, it’s the ability to communicate it to your audience. You must be a great presenter and orator. We weren’t the head of the pack in the final round; when we began we were fourth or fifth in the scores. But we managed to put in a stellar presentation, which ultimately landed us the prize.”

David Mars ’07, who has been a judge in the first three stages of the competition over the last few years, echoed the importance of clarity when asked what strategies or elements of a business idea impressed or intrigued him the most as a judge. Successful teams “get your attention right away and get you to buy the basic idea from the start. Then you listen to the rest of the plan. They have five minutes to really get their purpose across. If you have to listen to the whole five minutes before figuring out what they’re doing, that puts the team at a disadvantage.” Mars also suggested that as much as the idea itself must be compelling, team dynamics are equally important. In his assessment he looks “at the team first and the idea second … It’s not just one person. How does the main founder bring in others to create a well-balanced approach across the competition? Operations. Finance. Marketing. As a founder you can’t always do everything. How good have team leaders been at convincing real quality people to join them? At an early stage like this, a CEO or Co-Founder’s entire job is selling. Selling to their team. Selling to investors.  And ultimately selling to their potential customers.”

Clear Admit asked previous winners and finalists what words of wisdom or advice they would give to the newest round of finalists.  Their responses were both inspirational and pragmatic. Natasha and Chris Ashton’s advice for finalists was short and to the point: “Hope is not a plan, just do it!” While Davis Smith reflected that he wished he had gotten to know his competitors better. “We’re all competitive by nature, especially at Wharton. Forget about the competition if you can, and get to know them. At the end of the day this is both an opportunity to build your network and enjoy the experience.”

At some point, similar advice was surely offered to this year’s winning team, Zenkars, as well as all teams that competed. Zenkars winning business idea was focused on a new way to sell used cars directly to consumers via the Internet. In their presentation they stressed that their approach would allow consumers to have a more peaceful buying experience while still allowing their business to remain profitable. When asked questions by the judges about how they would compare or differentiate themselves from similar online companies, they were ready to back up their plans with additional nuances as well as financial projections and details.

While the judges deliberated, all eight competitors were also given the chance to present one-minute elevator pitches to a larger audience for the Michelson People’s Choice Awards. All audience members were permitted to cast their votes for the team they felt came up with the most engaging and convincing summary of their plan. Teams all stuck to their allotted time limits and employed a variety of techniques to capture the attention of the audience, which was simultaneously helping itself to a complimentary buffet of chicken

Frank Brodie and Rob Bressler, of MacuLens, Pitch Their Idea to the Crowd

Frank Brodie and Rob Bressler, of MacuLens, Pitch Their Idea to the Crowd

kabobs, phyllo wrapped asparagus, tempura shrimp and oozing baked brie. Zenkars stood out with their humorous sketch in which the team leader Jean-Mathieu Chabas ’13 and team member Venkat Jonnala ’13 acted out a scenario wherein Chabas sought to purchase a used car but wasn’t sure where to start. Venkat then appeared and persuaded Chabas that Zenkars would be the best choice. This was made more humorous by Chabas’ choice of dress – informal athletic gear instead of the suit and tie he wore during their formal presentation – as well as an American accent (Chabas’ contributions to their main presentation would suggest that he is a Francophone). They concluded their pitch by joking that all Wharton students would receive a $300 discount for any car they purchased through the site.

During the lull that occurred while People’s Choice ballots were being tallied and judges continued to determine their picks for the competition’s overall winners, the crowd gathered at the base of the steps in Huntsman Hall’s forum in anticipation. Student organizers, as well as Wharton Entrepreneurship Program organizers Emily Cieri and Jill Anick, extended gratitude to the numerous individuals who helped plan and organize the event, from all the judges and advisors to the underwriters of top prizes. Eventually the crowd hushed as the two Co-Chairs and hosts of the event, Fraz Ahmed ’14 and Lane Rettig ’14, took to the stage to announce the winners. They began with the Gloeckner Award, a $10,000 prize given to the highest ranking Wharton undergraduate team that competed in the WBPC. This honor went to AlphaX, which developed a “early stage anti-inflammatory small molecule drug” that would allow those suffering rheumatoid arthritis to avoid painful and repetitive drug injections in favor of an oral alternative. Next, the People’s Choice awards were announced. While Zenkars may have gotten the loudest laughs, it was MacuLens that prevailed.  The MacuLens team, comprised of two Wharton MBA students – one of whom was pursuing a dual MBA/MD degree – hopes to bring a new product to market that will reduce the risks and hassles of the glare of headlights and other bright lights that one often experiences when driving. The product itself could be applied to drivers’ glasses, car windows and many other surfaces, and could also be potentially beneficial to professional athletes competing at night.

Then it was on to the top three overall winners. Coming in third was Top Trender, a company focused on spotting fashion trends and helping buyers of department stores and clothing companies determine the styles that would be most likely to hit big in upcoming seasons through an online game. The second place winner was MacuLens. And for the Perlman Grand Prize of $30,000, it was Zenkars for the win.

The day-long event concluded with the cheers of friends and contestants, and the smiling and relieved expressions of the winners as they were mobbed by well-wishers and asked to pose for numerous photographs. While there could be only one winner, all contestants benefited from the exposure and guidance the WBPC provided, and there is little doubt that even those outside of the top three have bright futures ahead of them.

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