What's the Big Idea? Judge for Yourself
By Josh Hyatt, contributor
Call it April Madness. In just a few days, 42 teams of student entrepreneurs will compete in a grinding competition to win a record-busting $1 million in cash and prizes.
Meet the 42 teams who have been chosen – out of 420 entries – to face off in Rice University's Tenth Annual Rice Business Plan Competition, the country's largest and wealthiest graduate-level business contest. "Rice has not only become the richest competition, but it has surpassed the others in terms of prestige," says Joseph Picken, executive director of The Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UT Dallas. "For student entrepreneurs, this is the World Series and the Superbowl."
Picken has attended four out of the last five contests, accompanying a student-run startup – including one that has since raised $16 million. But this year "our folks didn't make the cut," he says. The surviving 42 were chosen based on their executive summaries, and are grouped in six categories: Life sciences, information technology, energy, green tech, social and other.
If history is any guide, the business plans will be put to even greater tests after the contest. From last year's batch, 80 percent are forging ahead with their businesses – a percentage that has risen every year. Over the past nine years, 95 of the 270 competitors have gone into business, raising more than $220 million, by the university's count.
Every startup that did earn an invitation to this weekend's event will be rewarded with at least $500. But which team of aspiring entrepreneurs will walk away with a Grand Prize valued at $380,000? Whose plans will the 200-plus judges – entrepreneurs, investors, and other business leaders – deem worthy of one of the five $100,000-plus awards? New prizes this year include one for the most succinct TwitPitch (prizes are $14, $140 and $1400, reflecting Twitter's iroclad140-character limit), $10,000 worth of mentoring for the winning social-venture plan and a NASA-sponsored $50,000 "Game Changer" award for commercial space innovation. There's also a $10,000 award for the most courageous female entrepreneur.
The campus-based contest begins with a $1000 "elevator pitch" competition on Thursday night, with a team member getting just 60 seconds to win over a judge. After two rounds of pitching investors, the final contest comes on Saturday afternoon. The Grand Prize includes a mix of cash, equity investment, incubation and mentoring services.
With the economy emerging from the recession's shadow, this year's contest should also provide valuable insight into where fledgling entrepreneurs – and seasoned investors alike – see the most promising hotspots for creating value. And their vision extends beyond the U.S. market; seven of the teams are international. The three-day skirmish begins April 15. Click here to arm yourself with the information you'll need to play favorites.
The competition is hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the school's flagship initiative devoted to supporting entrepreneurship. This year, Fortune is also co-sponsoring the contest.
Be sure to check the site during the course of the competition, from where we'll be filing live posts and Tweets talking with the students, advisors and judges who are participating.
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