The first university venture competition was created at the University of Texas in 1984, organised by MBA students who wanted to competitively test their business ideas. They are now present not only in most universities, but also run by many other organisations including banks, large corporations, and local and national governments. They are essentially activities where business students (and recent graduates) present their idea using a business plan or a pitch to a panel of experts for money and other support – and with healthy competition from classmates.
So why should MBAs enter venture competitions?
1. Get honest, actionable feedback
Judges often include academics, venture capitalists, startup founders and senior corporate leaders – so you are getting feedback from some high-quality consultants. Negative feedback shouldn’t be dismissed if it finds a fatal flaw in your idea, as it could stop you making an expensive and time-consuming mistake. You can then see if your idea can pivot to something that might work.
2. Gain cash to advance your idea
Prize money varies from £10k to £100k, but even a relatively small amount of prize money can be useful, to allow your idea to move forward - especially if you can employ lean startup methods to create a prototype, develop a roughly working app or pilot your service idea. This could give you useful cost data and user feedback which might be enough to gain further funding from elsewhere.
3. Get in-kind support
As well as cash, you might get a base for your idea with some incubator space where you can network with others and meet clients in a professional setting. Other support often includes IP lawyers, access to alumni mentors in your industry and accountancy services. Plus - plenty of publicity from the university press office where you can expect to be featured in the regional press as well as industry specific publications.
4. Boost your networking skills
MBAs are no strangers to networking, but competitions often encourage team entries, so linking up with others from the MBA class, or with those in other schools such as engineers or computer scientists are great for experience in creating a multi-skilled entrepreneurial team of people with different skills to yourself. Research shows for entrepreneurs and larger organisations diverse teams are generally more successful.
5. A starting point for your venture which could unlock other support
Winning or being highly placed is a big vote of confidence in your idea and is a good starting point if you want to enter an accelerator, or, if you are overseas student in the UK and want evidence to support an Entrepreneur Visa application to show that you are serious about start your business in the UK. You can even use your business plan to enter other competitions as they generally ask for much of the same information.
6. The entrepreneurship skills are still useful even if you decide to get a corporate job on graduation.
You will need to explain among other things the opportunity, its potential market size and drivers, costs and profit and the potential to scale up. Practising pitching an idea in a clear and succinct manner that a range of experts and non-experts can understand is another skill that’s useful in the corporate as well as the entrepreneur’s world.
The best business school competitions to enter
There are many prestigious competitions in universities, with the MIT 100k Entrepreneurship Competition offering a $1 million prize fund of cash and in-kind support. The New Venture Competition at George Washington University and the MN Cup at the University of Minnesota both offer $500k in prizes. The London Healthtech Challenge run by London Business School encourages submission from teams of business and science students working collaboratively.
Outside of academia, the Hult Prize for social enterprise is open worldwide with a $1million prize fund, and the Young Entrepreneurs Challenge is open to anyone in mainland Europe aged 16-25 and offers cash and support to help start your business.
Many MBA graduates decide to use the competition as a launchpad for their career as an entrepreneur - Erick Vera Bazan completed his MBA at University of Manchester in 2018 and won second prize in the Business category of the Venture Further competition with his idea LittleInca - an organic quinoa-based baby food. Caleb Conner set up luggage storage company City Spare Space after winning an MBA business idea competition.
Entering the university venture competition is a risk-free way to test your idea - and a great opportunity to put into practice entrepreneurship units you have taken during your MBA.
Dr Robert A. Phillips is Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester