Croaking Frogs, Swiss Cheese, and Close Calls—A $25K Winner’s Tale
The 2009 University of Washington Business Plan Competition has come and gone. It started with something like 90 business plan submissions that were paired down to 33 set to compete in an investment round. That round can best be described as a Las Vegas-style trade show with 33 booths, over two hundred judges, team shirts, ties, hair styles, and five hours of pitching that left me and many of my friends sounding like frogs at the end of the day. “Ribbit, Nanocel cools electronics better and cheaper, Ribbit.” The 16 teams that had the most “CIE bucks” invested in them made it to the next round.
Teams had a few weeks to prepare a slide deck and practice presenting their cases to a panel of judges. We all had coaches that listened to our pitches and critiqued them. For team Nanocel, this round was critical as our coaches grilled us on our pitch and punched enough holes in our presentation to make it look like Swiss cheese. That session was uncomfortable. But our coaches weren’t there to stroke us. They were there to school us and schooled we were. We recorded the session and listened to our coaches comments over and over. We did our best to implement every single recommendation and answer every single question raised so that they wouldn’t be asked again. It paid off. The questions raised by our coaches were never again asked by judges in subsequent rounds. Our coaches obviously knew their stuff.
Several weeks later, after multiple presentation deck rewrites and scores of practice pitches, we were ready for the Sweet 16. The day started in a room filled with all of the competitors looking tired, nervous, excited, and tough. My evening MBA class was well represented. I knew these student teams and have seen them present on case studies for last two years. We were confident in our product, our team, our pitch. My partner Dustin sat back looking confident and collected. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried and intimidated by the competition.
We found out when and where we’d be pitching, who our judges were and which teams we needed to beat to get to the final round. We had two hours before we had to pitch and used our time to research our judges just in case one of them would personally benefit from our technology. And we paced around. The pitch seemed to go fast and the questions after were tough. But it was what we expected and we were ready.
The toughest part of the day was coming up. We had to pause and eat lunch, waiting to find out which teams would move on to the finals. I’m not a small fellow by any standard, and I had a hard time eating. I’m a confident guy, pretty sure of myself, but I was nervous. Would it all end there? Of course, all this time my teammates Dustin Miller, Todd Fishman and Mehar Pratap Singh, sat back looking cool and collected. Was I the only one with high blood pressure or was everybody losing it…just on the inside? Then I realized that Dustin only had a small plate of fruit in front of him. Tricky.
As the finalists were being called, I was categorizing them in my head. Okay, that one was from one group, that one from another. And then Energizing Solutions was called, and I felt my heart sink. ES was from my group, which meant we were going home empty-handed. I looked over at Dustin, but his eyes were downcast. But we were wrong. This year’s final four was actually a final five. Two teams from our early group made the cut. And Nanocel was on to the finals!
The rest of the day seemed to fly by. For some reason, presenting to the final judging panel was much easier than pitching to the first. The finals were presented to a large room full of people, whereas the earlier one had been a closed session of less than ten people. Perhaps since we had reached the goal of making it to the finals, it felt like some of the pressure was off. We gave it the best we had and, in my opinion, gave our best presentation ever, right on time.
The day ended down on Seattle’s waterfront with a lovely awards dinner where we ate good food and listened to a great keynote speaker, Paul Thelen. It was torture. Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE‘s director must hold training sessions for her staff on keeping a perfect poker face because I looked long and hard at Sarah Massey, the organizer of the business plan, as well as at Lauren Witt and Pamela Tufts, the other great staff from CIE that made this possible, and got absolutely nothing. But in the end, when Nanocel was the name they called as the winner, it was worth the wait.
To the staff of CIE, TechTransfer, the UW MBA professors, Seattle University professors, our individual coaches, and to the hundreds of entrepreneurs, VCs, and angels that graciously gave your time and advice in the various rounds of this competition, Team Nanocel says thank you. We’re excited and proud to have won. But we know that our success in this competition was built on the backs of our school and our mentors. We know our future success will be gained the same way. We’ll do our best to make you proud!