Business competitions help teach entrepreneurship principles

Posted: 7:30 pm Mon, April 15, 2013
By Alissa Gulin
Daily Record Business Writer,

John Hopkins AwardThe four Johns Hopkins University engineering students had toured hospital operating rooms. They had identified an obvious problem for which there was no solution. They had spent months developing a prototype that theoretically holds the power to prevent costly and unnecessary second surgeries for breast cancer patients.

Neil O'Donnell, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, holds material from his team’s winning entry, KidVentions, in the General Business category of JHU’s competition. KidVentions enables children to make their toys using a 3D printer.

They had the technical expertise.

What they didn’t have was the business acumen to transform their work into a viable commercial product.

That’s where two recent business plan competitions — one only for Hopkins students; the other a prestigious national contest in Texas — help bridge the gap between the lab and the marketplace.

The master’s degree students, who have named their venture PathoS, earned first place in the Medical Technology and Life Sciences category in Friday’s JHU competition, netting $6,000; they then picked up another $25,000 at the Rice University Business Plan Competition over the weekend.

“To be honest, we’re a group of engineers,” said PathoS team member Qing Xiang Yee, 25. “Business models aren’t exactly our strength, so by going through this competition, it’s almost like a ‘business boot camp 101’ for us. Especially in the warm-up rounds, the judges are pretty brutal. You go there thinking that what you have works, that it’s really good, and they waste no time in telling you that you have quite a bit more to learn. So you go back to your room at the end of the day — you’re kind of exhausted, you’re slightly shaken — and you work at it. You think about things … and your business plan matures very quickly.”

A willingness by students to step out of their comfort zone is common among the 24 finalist teams that competed in Hopkins’ 14th annual Business Plan Competition, which seeks to expand interest in entrepreneurship and provide crucial early-stage funding to student-led ventures with the best prospects for success.

Yee said his team will use their winnings to continue developing the prototype for ClearView, which allows diagnostic pathologists to check if a lumpectomy has successfully removed an entire tumor before surgery ends, which could prevent reoperations.

Tumors removed from other parts of the body are already tested during surgery, but breast tissue is too fatty to be examined using this quick method, Yee said. Instead, pathologists must examine a breast tumor post-surgery — after the patient has gone home. When Yee learned that about 66,000 revision surgeries take place in the U.S. each year, it became an “obvious” issue to tackle, he said.

What wasn’t so obvious, he said, was the business lingo.

“At the end of one of the presentations at Rice, the judges asked us, ‘So how much is your ask?’ and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ Yee said. “And they had explain, ‘Oh, that means, how much are you asking for?’ I guess it was a pretty good laugh at the time.”

Yee and his PathoS teammates represent the type of competitors JHU officials hope to attract: students who caught the business bug but may not know their way around a balance sheet, much less how to craft a winning business plan, because they’re pursuing degrees in other fields.

The competition is organized by the Center for Leadership Education, which is based in Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering and aims to teach basic business principles to students of any major. The CLE is partially responsible for the growing culture of entrepreneurship on campus and the mounting popularity of the competition, which yields more impressive entries every year, said CLE Director Timothy Weihs.

“The quality of the business plans and the student presentations has gone up dramatically,” Weihs said. “Each year … more students learn about it and take the appropriate classes to help prepare.”

Annually, about 1,500 students take courses through the CLE, and about 150 graduate with an official minor in entrepreneurship and management. Neil O’Donnell, the team leader for KidVentions, the first-place winner in the competition’s General Business category, is one of them.

O’Donnell, now 21 and pursing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, said he and his teammates pursued that minor and learned how their ideas could be turned into successful commercial ventures.

KidVentions, which enables children to create their own toys using a 3D printer, seems like a stretch from O’Donnell’s engineering classes, but there’s more overlap than one might think, he said.

“Engineering is great because you can really look at breaking down a system and at what variables matter,” he said. “With [KidVentions], we had to look at flow rate — how many customers could we service with the 3D printer in one hour? So I’m happy to say that my engineering experience was something that was very important in making the math work and doing the dimensional analysis of, ‘OK, if we buy a $90,000 printer, can we satisfy one customer a day? What about 10 customers or 100 customers?”

Participating students hailed from all corners of the university — from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to the Bloomberg School of Public Health — with only a small portion enrolled in the Carey School of Business, which is for graduates only. The diversity of disciplines in the competition made the experience more valuable than if it was open to business majors only, several people said.

“I’m a better engineer because of my business experience and I’m a better entrepreneur because of my engineering experience, so hopefully there’s some synergy,” O’Donnell said. “I’m a biomedical engineer, but I think I fell more in love with business than the human body at Hopkins.”