Three Harvard students are on top of the world this week – or at least on top of the MBA world’s most visible startup contest. The trio emerged victorious from Harvard Business School’s high-stakes New Venture Competition, where student-led startups compete for prestige, credibility and $50,000 grand prizes in two tracks, business and social enterprise. Previous winners have gone on to found such success stories as Rent the Runway and CloudFlare.
Manoah Koletty and John Ikeda claimed the top prize in the social enterprise category for Bluelight, which provides financing for low-income households in the developing world through an innovative scratch-card system. Adrian Ross nabbed first place in business for Tauros Engineering, which commercialized technology to detect dangerous bridge erosion.
The Harvard students were among eight finalist teams selected to present their business pitches before a panel of five judges on April 30. The four finalists in the business track were assessed on the economic viability of their business models. Judges weighed in on everything from the teams’ breadth and depth of experience to the originality of the idea and the market opportunity. The four social enterprise teams were scored on the social value of their plans and the models’ financial sustainability.
Harvard launched the business arm of the New Venture Competition, formerly called the Business Plan Contest, 17 years ago. The social enterprise category was added four years later. In total the contest awards more than $150,000 in cash and in-kind services with the ostensible objective of encouraging students to create and evaluate new businesses. The program offers startup competitors reimbursement of up to $1,000 to build out their business models in addition to expert advice, one-on-one meetings with entrepreneurs and a series of workshops.
For business track winner Ross, the opportunity offered a chance to get feedback on a family business. His aunt developed the technology to detect bridge erosion, the number one cause of bridge failures in the U.S., at the University of Maryland. Recognizing the business potential of the idea, Ross developed a plan to commercialize it and entered the competition. He didn’t expect to win. “As with any startup there are always ups and downs. You think you have a great idea, but you never really know,” he says. “I was already pretty convinced about the business, but it’s great to get this recognition and that extra push to really commit to it and make it work.” Ross will graduate with his Harvard MBA next year and plans to continue building out the business.
Manoah Koletty and John Ikeda also aim to use the momentum of their recent social enterprise win as a springboard for Bluelight, a savings scheme for the developing world. Ikeda, who worked in microfinance for nearly a decade, found that regulations and other barriers blocked people in developing countries from finance and savings plans. He met Manoah Koletty at the Harvard Kennedy School and was later introduced to Jordanian national Mustafa Khalifeh, a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The three devised a plan that combines the layaway savings model with scratch cards to allow low-income households to make prepayments on consumer goods.
They entered their idea in the competition and walked away with first prize. “It’s an amazing bridge to launching and expanding the enterprise,” Ikeda says. After graduation both Koletty and Ikeda plan to join Khalifeh in Jordan, where they’re currently piloting the business model. From there they hope to expand to Egypt and Indonesia, eventually tackling more of the developing world in 2016. “We’re really excited and just raring to go,” Koletty says. “To have them choose us is an incredible shot in the arm in terms of our confidence moving forward.”
The runners up, who took home $25,000 in cash each, included Quickstor, a mobile self-storage rental platform, and WAVE Hospitality Academy, which provides vocational training to West African youths. Other competitors ranged from a tool to monitor sleeping infants to a digital repository for patients’ end-of-life wishes.
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