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Monday, December 27, 2010

Biz plan contests: more are better?

The LA Times this morning ran a story on the business plan competition at the USC Greif Center for Entrepreneurship. On the front page of the business section (which today is not its own section) and with an obligatory picture of the latest winner, on one level the story was a fairly conventional reporter’s response to a college press release.

However, what caught my eye is that USC is not content to have one business plan competition, but seems to have four: the (original?) Greif competition, a New Media competition (“Crunch”?) at the Annenberg School of Communication, a newer New Media competition planned for the business school, and then a competition at the Viterbi engineering school

I know at SJSU, we’ve tried to make our business plan competition be an all-campus event, and that seems to be the philosophy at Stanford and MIT too.

There are occasional exceptions. When I was researching tech entrepreneurship programs at the top 25 business and engineering schools in the US, I noticed that Purdue has a separate Life Sciences Business Plan Competition.

There are pros and cons of each approach: The bigger all-campus competitions should be able to offer bigger prizes: MIT now offers $100k to its top winner, as well as more visibility. The smaller contests are probably going to be capped at around $10k top prize money (the three winners at Greif were awarded $12,500 each.)

On the other hand, the more focused competitions will be easier to judge, because the competitors are more homogeneous and it’s easier to get judges who can span this narrower domain. The size of the competition is kept more manageable. And perhaps more importantly, I think the organizers and judges can provide better feedback to the contestants.

The LA Times article notes — as any contestant or organizer would tell you — that the value of competing goes beyond the money to include the practice, the feedback and the connections made. My hunch is that where a campus can support multiple, college-specific competitions, the students will learn more and get a better career boost than the all-campus Inventapalooza that would otherwise ensue.

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