The 10 finalists in Wyoming’s largest student entrepreneurship competition take the stage April 26 at the Gateway Center on the University of Wyoming campus.
“Each year, students complete hundreds of projects that result in creative and innovative ideas with market potential as a product or service,” said Steven James Russell, assistant dean for the College of Business. “The $50K Ellbogen Entrepreneurship Competition is designed to encourage Wyoming students to act on their talents, ideas and energy to produce tomorrow’s leading businesses.”
The $50K John P. Ellbogen Entrepreneurship Competition enters its 18th year with some new wrinkles. Chief among those changes is a name change to reflect the additional $20,000 in startup money available for the top competitors.
Feedback from students and judges alike also led to the creation of two tiers for competitors – a business track and a social enterprise track. Each track includes $25,000 in prize money. The grand prize winners in each track will receive incubation space for one year in the Wyoming Technology Business Center, a partner of the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency.
“The social enterprise track is more community-focused, while the business track is more technology and business service-based,” said Steve Russell, assistant dean in the College of Business. “The separation into two tracks means our judges no longer have to compare apples to oranges within the submissions.”
Judges hailing from all corners of Wyoming industry and academia whittled down dozens of entrants since Oct. 6. Founders and executives of companies like Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, Gotham Greens and Firehole Composites serve as judges this year.
Competitors submitted written business concepts to the judges, then pitched their product or service during an entrepreneur networking event earlier this year.
Entrepreneurs who survived that round must submit their final written business plans.
Finalists are plugged into a network of entrepreneurs, investors and potential partners. They receive mentorship from successful, seasoned professionals who provide an education in specific business planning skills and general entrepreneurial insight.
Team members spend their evenings in seminars focused around topics like strategy, sales and marketing, financial projections and legal matters.
Students from every college on campus are eligible to apply and student companies in the seed, startup or early growth stages are eligible for the competition. This year’s finalists are majoring in ecology, mechanical engineering, petroleum engineering, education, marketing, business administration, anthropology and more.
The competition fits neatly into a new concept created by UW President Dr. Laurie Nichols called Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The College of Business has created what it calls the Business Creation Factory to help students understand quickly and cheaply whether they have a feasible business idea. If they do, the factory helps them move to the next stage.
“You might call it a ‘pre-incubator’,” Russell said. “Whether it’s a student or faculty from around the community or the state, we can help. They might have intellectual property from the chemistry department, or a cool new way to teach music that came out of something they learned in their education classes.”
The Business Creation Factory staff help budding entrepreneurs explore whether those ideas are feasible and, if so, where the market might be.
While the Ellbogen competition’s eye-popping $50,000 purse may garner much of the attention, the mentorship, assistance from the Wyoming Technology Business Center incubator and resources like the Business Creation Factory may be the bigger prizes.
The wealth of knowledge available to UW students pursuing their own company has been a major discovery for Ryan Gallagher.
The third-year law student and his business partner, Mike Magner, started a food truck business in Boston called Bowl Boyz during summer break. Neither student built a business plan. They improvised.
Since entering the competition, the Bowl Boyz founders have defined and refined their business approach.
“What this competition has done is help narrow our distribution channels, figure out our overhead costs, understand the legal process for hiring employees, broke down the tax requirements and learn how to market ourselves effectively,” Gallagher said. “Even if you don’t win this competition, you are getting tools and the availability of some really great mentors.”
Of course, Gallagher still thinks Bowl Boyz deserves the top prize. The seed money will help his company expand to Laramie and give the city a healthier alternative to what’s currently in the market, he explained.
Both Bowl Boyz are putting the final touches on their presentations and feel prepared for the summit.
“We are big believers in concept of growing your own,” Russell said. “The Entrepreneurship Summit is a creative, powerful reminder to the public of what a UW graduate can look like after they go through the great programs we have at this university.”
The summit begins with opening remarks by University of Wyoming president Dr. Laurie Nichols at 8 a.m. Business track competitors pitch their companies and field questions from the judges beginning at 9 a.m. The social enterprise competitors begin at 2 p.m.
A networking dinner, keynote speaker and awards ceremony follow the presentations from 4:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. Local and global entrepreneurs like the founders of Otterbox and Mindie Kaplan, a pioneer in virtual reality applications for major corporations, will lead panel discussions about the future of business.
“If you have an interest in entrepreneurship, whether you are one or want to know how to be one, this is where you want to be to learn and to network,” Russell said.
The competition began in 2000 with $10,000 in prizes. In all, 200 student entrepreneur teams have won more than $400,000 in cash prizes, in addition to continued mentorship and logistical support.
Past winners include marketing firm Atmosphere Marketing, vertical hydroponics innovator Bright Agrotech, bioengineer firm GlycoBac, risk management and forestry services company Firewise Forest Management and winery Table Mountain Vineyards.
“You have to remember that we’re playing for the long game here,” Russell said. “The Bright Agrotechs of the world spent a decade before becoming a household name in Wyoming, but look where they are now. There will be a lot of incredible potential at this summit, but it won’t happen overnight.”
That’s why, Russell added, the university commits to these students long after the competition ends.
Whether help comes in the form of the Wyoming Technology Business Center incubator, business creation factory or assistance from future College of Business classes as part of a senior thesis, these student entrepreneurs will have a dedicated support system.