Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to become an entrepreneur, but now aspiring undergraduate capitalists can stay in school and still pull in the dough.
Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) is tantalizing budding student entrepreneurs with a new, $5,000 prize for the business proposal that is judged to have the greatest potential for commercial success.
"The point of the contest is to let students' ideas run wild," said HSA President Amit Tiwari '98. "We're not looking for a very professional business plan-what we're mostly looking for is the spark that could be the impetus for getting a full-fledged business going in the future."
The winner will have the opportunity to spend spring break 1998 developing a formal business plan and may receive an additional $10,000 in startup capital, at the discretion of a collection of companies, which are both covering the cost of and judging the competition.
The second-and third-place winners will receive prizes of $1,000 and $500, respectively.
"I noticed that there was a great experience for students to get hands on experience [in business], but one thing I felt we needed as an organization was to revive that entrepreneurial spirit on campus," Tiwari said.
HSA officials stressed that they have no hidden agenda in running the competition.
Many on campus have assumed that HSA, a $4.3 million corporation than manages 11 agencies plus Let's Go Inc., is simply looking for the next great idea for a new, student-run agency, an assumption HSA has said is false.
"Originally," said Tiwari, "We thinking along the lines of building a database of ideas, but we've really expanded our focus now and we just want to create a forum for undergraduates to express their business ideas.
"Students don't have to worry about losing the rights to their ideas-the point of the contest is just to give them the opportunity to get their idea out."
According to Tiwari, the winners of the contest will be under no obligation to implement their ideas. They have the option to use their idea and winnings to start companies independent of HSA.
Undergraduates can enter HSA's contest, aptly named "Let's Grow," in teams of up to three. Each team must submit a proposal of five pages or less, summarizing the idea and the potential market and competition.
Although other schools-such as Stanford, MIT and the University of Texas at Austin-have organized similar competitions that were sometimes open to Harvard students, this is the first time an entrepreneurship contest has been offered specifically for Harvard undergraduates.
The Harvard Business School (HBS) launched a similar contest last year, but limited participation to its own second-year students, Tiwari said.
Fulfilling A Dream
By yesterday afternoon, approximately 50 students had requested entry applications.
"In terms of what HSA is doing, I think this is a fantastic idea," Andrew G. W. Chung '99 said. "I think a lot of students are interested in entrepreneurship...Very few people actually think about the steps necessary to fulfill that dream, and I think this is a very good motivation."
Chung declined to disclose details of his contest entry but said it "had to do with re-engineering what goes on in the medical profession" using information technology.
"It's something I thought of this summer, and I thought about making my own business plan," Chung said. "This contest gave me some pressure to do it."
Members of the Harvard Entrepreneurs Club praised the HSA contest. "We're excited because it's great for entrepreneurship on campus," said Mitchell B. Weiss '98, vice president of the club. "It's something we would have liked to do but we don't have the resources HSA has."
Financing the Contest
Funding for the competition was provided by several corporations, including Fidelity Investments--the principal sponsor--as well as the Boston Consulting Group, Mercer Madison Consulting and the Mitchell Madison Group.
John Rehm, vice president of Fidelity, said that sponsoring the competition was "a big priority" for his company.
The entries will be judged blindly by representatives from the sponsor companies, venture capitalists and other professionals. Judging will be based on the likelihood of commercial success, the technical and managerial feasibility of the business and how the expectations of the business plans match reality.
Both big business and small business ventures should fare equally well, Tiwari said. "There's really no limit to the scope or size of the project."
Entries in last year's HBS competition ranged from "an enhanced international facsimile service to a salt mine in the Soviet Union, to retail stores, restaurants and Internet marketing companies," said Michael J. Roberts '79, executive director of entrepreneurial studies at HBS.
Entries in the new contest that make it past an initial round of judging in November will advance to a second phase of competition: a live presentation to judges.
Three finalists will be announced in mid-January. The winner will be declared on February 4, 1998.
To protect contestants whose entries hinge on proprietary information or technology that could offer a strategic advantage in the marketplace, HSA has promised to "ensure the protection of sensitive materials introduced and associated with the Contest," according to the contest guidelines.
In the past, several Harvard graduate students have participated and won in the MIT $50K, which boasts the largest prizes of collegiate entrepreneurship competitions: $30,000 plus expert advice for the winning team.
Although this is the inaugural year for the Harvard contest, Tiwari is confident that it will continue. "We already have organizations interested in funding it next year," he said.
The deadline for the five page proposal is October 31. Prospective contestants can pick up entry forms on the second floor of the HSA office at 67 Mt. Auburn