The hardball question was thrown during the Q&A with the judges who had been drilling Michael Schrader on the scientific and regulatory implications of his business pitch.
Schrader, 29, a second-year Harvard Business School student, already had effortlessly handled his 15-minute pitch for the school’s Business Plan Competition on Tuesday afternoon (April 24). It was no easy task because the idea he and his six teammates were trying to sell is fairly complicated.
Their startup, Vaxess Technologies, is working to commercialize Tufts University knowhow using a protein derived from silk. The technology stabilizes vaccines into a thin film strip which can be shipped and stored without refrigeration, increasing access to life-saving products for people all around the world.
Schrader, who has worked for Honda and Toyota and did his summer MBA internship with Google, had been answering all the questions with relative ease. And then came the tough one:
“What is the molecular weight of silk fibroin?” the judge asked.
Schrader gulped. He had no idea what the answer was.
“I looked around and felt flustered,” he recalls. “A lot of the questions you can redirect. For this one, there was no fluffing around it.”
One of his teammates, Kathryn Kosuda, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and a former chemist at Merck Pharmaceuticals, quickly jumped in.
Schrader breathed a sigh of relief. “She just nailed it with an impressive level of granular detail,” he says, “and that was the question that won the competition.”
Shortly afterward, Schrader and his teammates walked off the Burden Auditorium stage at HBS as the latest big winners of the school’s annual business venture contest.
The team won the top $25,000 cash prize along with another $25,000 in in-kind services, including work space in the new Harvard Innovation Lab.
Harvard’s competition is among the biggest and most influential of all the business plan contests run by business schools. But it is hardly the only player in this game.
TOP 20 B-SCHOOLS AND THEIR UNIVERSITIES NOW AWARD $1.6 MILLION IN PRIZES EACH YEAR
The top 20 U.S. business schools and their universities now dangle more than $1.6 million in prize money annually to students who enter their business plan competitions (see table below of competitions at top 20 schools). That sum is still only a fraction of the total available to students. Last month, for example, Rice University’s Business Plan Competition handed out more than $1.55 million in cash and prizes, including the top prize of $450,000 to three Northwestern University students and a faculty member for a company called NuMat Technologies which invented a nanomaterial that can store gases just like a sponge soaks up water. The founding team, which includes two JD-MBA students from the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern’s Law School, won a total of more than $874,000 in prizes from Rice.
Top B-School New Venture & Business Plan Competitions
|Harvard Business School||Business Plan Contest (Venture Track & Social Venture Track)||$170,000 ($25K first prize)|
|Harvard Business School||Alumni New Venture Contest (Venture Contest & Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship)||$100,000 ($50K grand prize)|
|Stanford University||Stanford Entrepreneur’s Challenge||$150,000 ($50K first prize)|
|Stanford GSB||Venture Capital Club Startup Pitch-Off||Unknown|
|Chicago (Booth)||New Venture Challenge||$75,000 ($25K first prize)|
|UPenn (Wharton)||Business Plan Competition||$75,000 ($45K grand prize)|
|Columbia||Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition||$14,000 ($8K first prize)|
|MIT (Sloan)||MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition||$350,000 ($100K first prize)|
|Northwestern (Kellogg)||Kellogg Cup||$7,000 grand prize|
|Dartmouth (Tuck)||Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Business Plan Competition||$50,000 first prize|
|UC-Berkeley (Haas)||bplan Startup Competition||$50,000 ($20K grand prize)|
|Duke University||Duke Startup Challenge||$92,500 ($50K grand prize)|
|Virginia (Darden)||UVa-Darden Business Plan Competition||$90,000 ($10,000 first prize)|
|Michigan (Ross)||Michigan Business Challenge||$60,000 ($20,000 grand prize)|
|Cornell (Johnson)||Cornell Venture Challenge||$13,500 ($10,000 first prize)|
|Yale||Yale Venture Challenge||$50,000 ($18K first prize)|
|New York (Stern)||New Venture Competition||$75,000 first prize|
|New York (Stern)||Technology Venture Competition||$75,000 first prize|
|New York (Stern)||Social Venture Competition||$50,000 first prize|
|UCLA (Anderson)||Knapp Venture Competition||$31,000 ($15K first prize)|
|Texas (McCombs)||Venture Labs Investment Competition||$135,000 ($25K cash prize)|
Source: Business school websites
Notes: First prize can sometimes include not only cash but the value of in-kind services, such as legal and financial consulting