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Posted: February 01, 2009

MBA students vie for best business plan

Competition 'a taste of the real world'

Mike Taylor

With $5,000 in prizes up for grabs, four teams of second-year MBA students squared off in mid-January to see who could write the best business plan and present it most convincingly, as if to a panel of venture capitalists. In fact, the judges were venture capitalists.

Instructor Frank Moyes from the CU Leeds School of Business called the competition “as close to a real-world environment as you can get.” The real world? The one with a 7.2 percent unemployment rate and a net loss of 2.6 million jobs nationwide in 2008? Yikes.

Liz Lowry, one of the finalists in the Business Plan competition consisting of four CU students per team, says the subject of the hapless economy hasn’t come up too much among her fellow students as they’ve been immersed in their projects, but she did say, “It’s funny, one of my teammates, Paul Cavalieri, is like, ‘We all had jobs before we came into this program, and I’m a little worried we all might not have jobs when we leave.’” At least Lowry managed to laugh as she shared Cavalieri’s quip.

Lowry, 28, was working for an environmental-conservation nonprofit in Denver before leaving to pursue her MBA. “Most of us left what we were doing for a reason, so I don’t think anyone’s going to feel like they really got stiffed on the deal,” she says. Indeed, it could be a more difficult job environment for Lowry and other second-year MBA students when they graduate in May than when they entered grad school roughly two years ago. By contrast, new MBA students might well be lured back to school by this recession. “Historically, applications to business schools have been countercyclical, so when the economy goes bad, applications tend to go up,” says Moyes, a longtime entrepreneur and startup investor who has taught at CU for 10 years. Jobs may dwindle in recessions, but the flip side is that downturns tend to foster entrepreneurial ventures, which is what these four teams of MBA students got a taste of when they wrote business plans and presented them to a judging panel consisting of Chris Wand, managing director of The Foundry Group; Marc Silverman, managing partner of CoCap Group LLC; and Kirk Holland, general partner with Vista Ventures.

The $2,000 winners’ prize went to Knova Learning, an education-management concept that opens and manages public schools to prepare low-income students for college and careers. Second place and $1,250 went to 3QMatrix, a biomedical company developing wound-healing products. 3QMatrix’s technology is being developed by CU but, like Knova Learning, it hasn’t been commercialized. “So the plan is all about how you commercialize the technology,” Moyes says. Lowry and Cavalieri’s team placed third and pocketed $1,000 in prize money for their business plan for Bhakti Chai, a beverage company in Boulder launched by 35-year-old Brook Eddy in 2007. The company already has six employees and has landed accounts along the Front Range and the Western Slope. Fourth place and $750 went to a business plan for Boulder-based Reel Lawn, an alternative lawn and garden service launched last summer that uses human-powered equipment and organic materials. That MBA team included Reel Lawn co-owners Kyle Mason and Daniel Sheats.

In the case of Bhakti Chai, both the MBA students and the company undoubtedly gained from the project. Owner Brook Eddy got a detailed 20-page business plan that she can present to prospective investors and use to help plot her company’s development. The four students who created the plan learned what it takes to launch a company and how to sustain it. “Something I’m going to take away from working with Brook is that passion is really important,” says Lowry, who interned at White Wave Foods in Broomfield last summer. “In terms of having your own business and being an entrepreneur, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, how great is the end product going to be?”

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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