Dartmouth Biz Plan Competition Elevates Novoculi, Developer of Non-Invasive Diabetes Test

5/21/09

There was plenty of chatter around the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in Boston earlier this month. The Cambridge, MA-based institute is one of the world’s leading hotbeds for entrepreneurship, but it shouldn’t completely drown out the buzz we’re hearing from Hanover, NH. That’s where Dartmouth College’s Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) named the winner of a new national business plan competition on May 8 at the Tuck School of Business. Given that Dartmouth has been a steady source of startup activity in the Boston area and elsewhere, the new competition and its contestants shouldn’t be overlooked.

I caught up last week with Tuck student Thomas “Mac” Dougherty, who led much of the effort to have the first-ever DEN Business Plan Competition. (Dougherty was also one of the people I met during my whirlwind visit to Dartmouth in March.) The worthy winner of the competition, Novoculi, took the top prize of $50,000 in cash (that’s right, no in-kind services, just the cash thanks.) Novoculi is developing a non-invasive device for diabetics to test their blood glucose. The device is based on research that has found blood glucose levels can be measured by projecting light into a patient’s eye, says Ariel Blumovich, an MBA student at Tuck and Novoculi team member. More specifically, it detects blood-sugar levels by measuring the rate at which pigments in the retina are regenerated after the retina is “bleached” by the light, he says.

The competition drew some 60 entries from around the country, Dougherty says. DEN, which is a network of Dartmouth-affiliated entrepreneurs in major cities in the U.S., rounded up contestants from nine areas around the country. Boston and Seattle (to mention markets where Xconomy covers the innovation scene) were two of those cities. Like other university-focused business plan battles, the DEN competition required that each of the entrants have one or more team members who are a faculty member, alumni, or student of Dartmouth.

Besides the winner, there were plenty of other interesting businesses in the running for this year’s $50K prize. PineeIR, a Washington, D.C.-area team, has a natural insect repellant that it says is proven to work better than chemical-based repellants like DEET. Tilting Motor Works, a Marysville, WA, startup, has a two-wheeled kit designed to replace the front wheels of motorcycles and provide greater stability and traction. (Though the front two wheels add stability, the system is designed to let riders tilt into turns like a regular two-wheeled motorcycle.) Another finalist was NuBorn Beverages, a startup in the Los Angeles area that is marketing drinks made with mixtures of teas, juices, and spices.

The economic slump underscores the importance of acquiring entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed in business plan competitions, Dougherty tells me. “As everybody knows, the economy is not in good shape, and we think that entrepreneurship is going to be one of the things that drives us out of the fix that we’re in,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that members of the Dartmouth community had access to a competition like this to teach them what it takes to put a company together.”

One cool feature of the competition was when judges discussed each of the business plans in front of a live audience during final and semifinal rounds at Dartmouth, Dougherty says. (Think American Idol with entrepreneurs rather than would-be singers competing—and definitely without Paula Abdul pandering to contestants.) This live judging format is a bit different from some of the competitions I’ve seen where judges talk about the merits of each plan behind closed doors before winners are revealed in front of the audience. Dougherty says that the live judging format provided valuable insights for contestants and audience members who may want to hone their business pitches for venture capitalists and other potential investors.

Dougherty, 28, was already aware of how to start a business when he began the MBA program at Tuck in 2007. Dougherty is the founder and chairman of AskOnline, a provider of software for online tutoring in Marblehead, MA. The company grew from an effort Dougherty ran while he was an undergraduate at Harvard University to connect Harvard undergraduates with students around Boston who were struggling with their grades. AskOnline’s plan won the social enterprise track of an undergrad business plan contest at Harvard when Dougherty was a student there, he says.

Dartmouth and the Tuck School have had business plan competitions at different times in the past, but those contests were smaller than the DEN competition and have not become annual events. Dougherty points out that the prize money for the DEN competition is certainly more than what was awarded in the past. But it’s not all about the size of the prize in these contests. Tim Healy and David Brewster won $1,500 in for their plan for EnerNOC when they were Tuck students in 2002. They went on to build the provider of energy-saving technology and services into a publicly traded company (NASDAQ:ENOC) based in Boston.

We’ll see what the Hanover-based team of Novoculi can do with its $50,000.

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