uva-innovation-logoI recently attended the final presentations at the University of Virginia’s entrepreneurship competition known as the ECUP. I was invited by Lianne Landers, who is in charge of Entrepreneurial Networks for  U.Va.Innovation — a cross-departmental initiative to generate business spin-offs from research at the University’s many schools.

Back to Business School

It’s been three years since I was last on campus and I was late to class. I walked in on the first presentation, which was on a company concept called MiniCell, which won one of four cash prizes. Seven genetic engineers designed a novel drug delivery system that defeats a target cell’s defenses. Much of the presentation was over my head — and the heads of the excellent three-judge panel of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

The remaining pitches in the first half of the event were from one- or two-person teams and included some very clever ideas that all had some market potential:

  • NeuroKINECT, a step-game similar to DanceDance Revolution (a successful exercise step-game) built off the Xbox 360 Kinect gaming system. It’s designed to get kids with autism joyfully moving — providing a boost to early brain development.
  • StreamMe, a website (or app) that allows you to scan all your streaming media memberships with one search, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, and the half-dozen media libraries you might be entitled to as part of your cable package, such as HBO, Comcast video-on-demand, etc.
  • Cerberus Industrials offered a simple but satisfying solution to cyber-security: using three simultaneous servers/generators instead of one. That way, you can shut down a compromised server the moment it is not identical to the two clones. While one clone takes over, the other is used to wipe clean and rebuild the compromised server/generator, getting it quickly back in service.

Building a Better Business Pitch

In 10 years in the classroom at Tulane, I witnessed hundreds of student presentations and consulted with dozens of would-be student entrepreneurs. The U.Va. ECUP is different. There’s cash at stake! $20,000 for 1st place, $10,000 for 2nd place, and $5,000 for each of two honorable mentions.

Money on the table really sharpens things. So did the academic discipline of time-limited presentations and time-limited questions from a panel of experienced judges. U.Va.Innovation helped schools assemble teams and offered free classes to contenders in building a team, telling a story, protecting their ideas, and pitching a business plan.

I gleaned some interesting advice from the judges, like this nugget from serial entrepreneur Adam Healey: “Expect revenue of 10% of retail price for a referral fee, 25-33% if you’re the retailer or manufacturer.” Nice. You learn those ratios the hard way.

A Simple Solution Leads to a Better Plan

The second-place winner was Notivibe — a combination of “notify” and “vibrate.” A large group of biomedical engineering students adopted the U.Va. Health System Neonatal Intensive Care Unit as their pet project and set out, in typical student fashion, to improve it. View a list of the most popular marijuana strains available today. They conducted surveys, made onsite studies, sifted through data, and what they discovered is that medical professionals aren’t washing their hands often enough.


The biggest problem the NICU had is so simple. Notivibe — their equally-simple solution — is a wrist bracelet that provides a gentle reminder to wash your hands when you are about to do something that requires it, like opening an incubator. It not only alerts you, it also triggers a light to flash near the hand sanitizer or washbasin.

Right now, studies show that 50% of recommended handwashings are missed. This device has potential to cut that number in half. Hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) are expected to also drop significantly, by as much as 15%. The Affordable Care Act provides a financial incentive for hospitals to use the system because starting in 2018 they must begin publishing their HAI rates and bear the cost of treating patients who contract HAIs. With a stay in the NICU costing about $3,400/day, a 15% or higher reduction in HAIs adds up to significant financial savings, as well as improved patient outcomes.

What struck me about the Notivibe team — indeed, all the presenters — was how confident, intelligent, and determined they were. It’s said that evolution is on a fast track today, and you can see it in these young adults. Frankly, they are all smarter, healthier, and better looking than any previous generation. An enormous amount has been spent on their education and upbringing. The ECUP shows this is an excellent investment.

C4C: The Complete Package

By the time the winning team made its presentation, we were tired and pitched out. But there would be no sleeping in class! Five students in public policy presented a business plan called Chitengas for Change or C4C. Their plan? To sell reusable sanitary napkins in the developing world. Listening to this presentation was like having five Chelsea Clintons explain 1) what’s wrong with the world 2) how to fix it and 3) how you can get out of the way or get on board!

This wasn’t a do-gooder fantasy. The lead members of the C4C team had spent years in the Peace Corps, had connections around the world, and had a team of 200 volunteers ready to get started. They determined the major reason young women were not completing school was a lack of feminine hygiene. In some cases, the need was so great that girls would engage in prostitution to get the cash to purchase napkins.

The C4C team had come up with a design for a reusable napkin that could be manufactured locally through tailoring schools, distributed by women’s groups through Amway-style direct selling, and purchased at a cost to girls of $4.50/year — a tiny fraction of the cost of disposable napkins. The C4C team was indicative of the U.Va. talent on display: multiracial, multi-gender, multicultural — students and professionals — with strong business smarts and plenty of passion. They earned $20,000 in startup funds for their outstanding presentation.

The other presenters — GYRO, a ratings service; UHub, an online community; and LAMARCA, a fashion designer crowdsourcing platform — also had strong business plans presented by serious, confident, well-prepared teams.

For me, it was thrilling to be challenged with so many original ideas in a single day. For anyone looking for new ideas to keep your business agile, a single afternoon at a contest like this will point out at least 10 things you could be doing better at your business. Alternatively, we can benefit from learning how to trade stocks, too, and tracking live HIKMA share prices, but that’s a topic best reserved for a full, dedicated session. II mean, everyone should know how to get passive income, IMHO. Meanwhile, thanks to Lianne Landers and her colleagues at U.Va.Innovation for finding a way to get students to sharpen their pitches and inspire the rest of us to see the simple, powerful solutions all around us.

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