Inside the UW Business Plan Competition—How One Team Got to Today’s Sweet 16

5/21/09

Today is the Sweet 16 and final round of the University of Washington’s annual business plan competition. Yesterday, I was asked to write an article about my experiences thus far. The fact that I’m writing this article during time that I should be practicing my pitch or, if I were really smart, trying to sleep, should give you a brief insight into the scrappy nature of an entrepreneur-to-be. I love this technology and the company my partner Dustin and I are forming—Nanocel—so I would rather tell you about it than count sheep.

The process of writing a competition-worthy business plan has been long and arduous. In our case, it has required hundreds of hours of research, meetings that started early and went late, and sacrificing things like sleep and dinner dates. So it helps if you’re starting with a good idea. Dustin Miller, my partner in crime and inventor extraordinaire/PhD student in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, came up with a good one. He figured out a way to use plastic as a heat sink for electronics applications, and it actually works. Really well.

We took this idea and started the process of researching and validating the market. I wasn’t sure at first if this “million dollar” idea had any legs at all. If it didn’t, we’d know soon enough and do something else. It didn’t take too long to learn that not only did it have legs, but this technology had applications all over the place. Everywhere we turned, from Frost & Sullivan and BCC Research reports to conversations with industry representatives, we learned of an intense need for cooling that exists in the electronics market. This isn’t a million dollar idea. It’s a billion dollar idea. Market validation, check.

This meant that we really had something worth pursuing. So, we started talking to folks that know a lot about startups. Namely, we went and begged for information from Janis Machala and Emer Dooley at the University of Washington. Both had taught classes in my MBA program and both seemed to know all about what to do and what not to do when getting things started. These learned ladies didn’t let us down. We came away with a long laundry list of questions to answer and information to gather. That meeting spawned another, and then another. It didn’t take long before Dustin and I had met with scores of entrepreneurial-minded people from academia to venture capitalists.

Between meetings, Dustin and I spent hours at the library and in coffee shops fleshing out a business plan that would stand up to the questions we’d been getting. Every meeting uncovered a weak spot or an area we hadn’t yet explored. With our research, I would write the plan. Then Dustin would disappear into his lab and work on the prototype. We both found that as time marched on, our lack of sleep was due as much to the excitement we felt about this opportunity as to the work we put into the research and writing of our plan.

By the time the business plan competition season finally rolled around, Dustin and I had become fluent in the electronics cooling market and adept at pitching our product. As a quick aside, I have to say that it’s a delight to work with an engineer who speaks in multisyllabic sentences! We’ve made it to the finals of two competitions thus far and have heard that our product is indeed fundable.

I feel good about our chances of making it to the final round this year. However, the competition is steeper than last year, and several of my classmates are on competing teams, including my teammate from last year. We’ve been good-naturedly taunting each other for weeks. I hope my classmates do well. And I hope I beat the pants off of them too.

This competition has been top-notch from the resource nights before it began to the investment round of 32 teams. Dustin and I have turned in our final business plan (version 15) and put our notes to bed. As I write this article, I think back on the work of the past several months, grateful for the opportunity to learn so much and fearful that it hasn’t been enough to win. We’ll know soon enough.

I’m glad we chose to compete. Win or lose, we’ll move forward with this idea. Someday when you’re reading something on your laptop and you stop to notice that your thighs are not being scalded by the heat emanating from its base, you may well have Dustin and me to thank. I hope so.

Daniel Rossi is a second year MBA Student at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle with his wife Mandy and dog Rufus. Follow @

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