Forty-eight students from 21 of majors and seven colleges at the University of Nevada, Reno have turned in their “Intent to Compete” in the 2019 Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition. The $50,000, winner-takes-all business plan competition is entering its eighth year, and organizers are changing the way the competition is run.
New this year, only 10 teams will be selected to move on and compete in the competition from the initial 23 entries received. Teams will find out if they make the cut Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. While teams will continue to be judged on the quality and potential execution of their created business plan, competition organizers have stressed the importance of developing a viable business model prior to the creation of a business plan. The judges, a combination of University faculty members and community entrepreneurs, desire to see some validation of the hypotheses behind the initial business ideas, as well as more interdisciplinary teams and diversity within the teams themselves.
“One of our goals is for students to really understand what a solid business team should look like,” Richard Bartholet, director of research at the Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship and director of the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, said. “Leading up to the Intent to Compete submissions, we held a series of workshops to educate students on the importance of team dynamics, the ideation process, how to develop all the necessary components of a business concept, how to validate those ideas, some legal issues to be considered, assessing competition and how to develop and deliver a business pitch.
According to Bartholet, not all entrepreneurs need to be visionaries. There are several key roles and a variety of complementary skill sets and personality types involved in most successful business startups. Startups need individuals skilled at operations, relationships/sales and developing the strategic vision.
Bartholet said one of the misperceptions about the competition continues to be around who can compete. Many students still believe only business students are eligible, when, in fact, the annual entrepreneurship competition is open to any University student enrolled during the academic year of the competition or the year prior. To be eligible, students simply need to be full-time and in good standing – undergraduates need to be enrolled in at least 12 credit hours, and graduate students need to be enrolled in at least six credit hours.
“Some of our strongest competitors have been interdisciplinary teams from across campus,” Bartholet said.
Over the last seven years, the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition produced a number of successful startup companies. Many of the competition’s runners-up have also gone on to see success in their businesses and attribute their achievements to the intense process and mentorship they received through Sontag.
“You get to develop a real, viable business plan, preparing you to take your idea and turn it into a reality,” Sean Nichols, co-founder of Dragonfly Energy said. “If you want to roll out a real business, you can. It’s the perfect place to test the waters, and it’s a lot of fun, too.”
Where are they now? Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition success stories
- 2013 winner EscaZyme, a specialized chemical company that manufactures component chemicals for use in the insect control industry, recently received a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant. EscaZyme is led by Jennifer Ott, past MBA student and chemist. Ott is now working with the Nevada Department of Agriculture and helping the Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship as an MBA student advisor.
- 2014 winner Irrigo took home the prize for their business plan to further develop water efficiency services for flood-irrigated agriculture. Since winning, the company’s founder, Brian Blair, a full-time Navy pilot, has pivoted the company becoming Strix Imaging. It now provides photogrammetry and aerial photography services.
- 2014 competitor and runner-up Dragonfly Energy, a lithium ion battery company, is growing rapidly. Co-founders Sean Nichols and Denis Phares are both still very active in the business.
- DxDiscovery, another 2014 competitor, is a biotechnology research and development firm, whose chief executive officer, David Main, competed in the competition. The firm continues to be active in University-based startups.
- 2018 runner-up Kimberly Greenman is in the process of launching her company, Financially Fit Employees, which offers coaching and support services that improve individuals’ financial decision making.
“This competition is so much more than an academic exercise,” University College of Business Dean Greg Mosier said. “We look for competitors who are serious about starting a business. Even if they don’t win, we’re hoping many of the teams that develop these business plans will actually give it a try and successfully launch businesses.”
Over the course of the next three months, students will work with University faculty and community business members who offer mentorships throughout the competition. Teams will receive support in developing traction for their businesses and the creation and presentation of detailed business plans, along with feedback and revised business plans for finalists. Finalists are also required to pitch their plans in-person to competition judges.
The Sontag Entrepreneurship Award is possible through a major gift to the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business from University alumnus Rick Sontag, ’66, in 2011. The endowment created by the gift funds the award in perpetuity.
“Opportunities are sitting in front of us that only require the decision to seize them,” Sontag said. “At Nevada, I realized I had other aptitudes, such as people and organizational skills, which led me on a career path that would make me happy.”
In addition to the generous endowment provided to the University’s College of Business, Sontag and his wife, Susan, continue to give back. Their foundation is the largest private funder of brain cancer research in the U.S. and also supports rheumatoid arthritis research.