Friday, May 26, 2006

Venturing back toward the Old

Yesterday was the finals of the Chicago New Venture Challenge. I had submitted a not-so-detailed executive summary over winter break, and was fittingly dinged. But, some people I know made the finals and I watched the latter half of the presentations yesterday. And, I have to say, there was some really polished presenting. Interesting ideas, thoroughly researched, and backed up with detailed financial analyses and ROI/valuation projections. There were also some insightful questions from the panel of VC's who were judging it, but tame compared to what I had been led to believe - that the judges tore apart some of the contestants in the past.

The results were announced during a reception for the participants, which I did not go to. I was out later that night with friends when one of them told us about the results, and I have to say that there was a consensus of What? It seems (and this is hearsay, i wasn't there) that Professor Kaplan, before announcing the winners, said that these would not have been his choices! So, what's going on?

Well, it seems that the GSB has decided to get on the Webtrain. We had two dot-coms share the first prize this year, after having an online test prep service, a pharma startup, and dental marketing software ideas win the last three. The two prize-winning plans were for, a restaurant locator service, and Collectica, a community for collectors incorporating tagging, user-generated content and suchlike.

Further details, and lists of winners, can be found at here, which BTW is also a good blog tracking entrepreneurship at the GSB and beyond.

The people's choice seemed to go with either Hybridtronics or BB Catalyst. The former is commercializing technology to retrofit buses and trucks to go hybrid, and they have an arrangment in place with Tata Motors in India. This is a huge deal, especially with the Supreme Court in India, with their verdicts, driving (pardon the pun) a slow, but sure, move towards using alternative fuels such as CNG, LPG etc for public transportation. BB Catalyst is thinking on a truly global scale to solve problems, and has found a great niche. Made up of Japanse and Latin American team members, they have contracted to buy used modem kits at throwaway prices from Japanese telcos and rehab and sell them at significant discount to new products to ISPs in Latin America. Turns out Japanese technology is so advanced that ISP's there replace customers' modems every 8-10 months and they are left with huge disposal costs. And, the cost of equipment in LatAm is prohibitively high impediing broadband adoption. And, they projected some really sweet margins, and contractual agreements with some huge players.

Maybe the winners' plans were better overall, maybe the fact that both of them had either revenues or promises of helped them, or maybe the next wave of internet companies are 'the' thing to invest in right now ... but it was a good experience for me to sit in that room, listen to them present, and challenge my own opinions. While I still think that the web holds some of the best potential for phenomenal growth ventures - and the inevitable burnouts - it was educational to be shown ideas that are solving some 'real' problems, and I suspect, have the better chance to turn into lasting, sustainable companies.

Congratulations to all the finalists.


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