What? Scientists in Business? Rice Scores Big.

I encountered one surprise after another from all the scientists last Friday and Saturday in Houston, where I was one of more than 100 judges at the Rice University 2008 Business Plan Competition. Nobody seems to be matching stereotypes anymore.

Barry Kahn has a PhD degree in economics. If you had seen him like I did, on Friday, you would have seen a short, athletic, stylishly dressed, engaging entrepreneur totally dedicated to his new company. If you’d encountered him Saturday night, you would have been one of more than 700 people at a gala awards banquet dinner. You’d have seen him with a wine glass raised high at the big moment, at the podium, toasting his team’s $325,000 combined first place winnings (which is a mix of cash, investment, and services).

It was just another surprise moment in a weekend of surprises. Normally the winners pose for the picture with the check and the sponsors, accept the applause, and bask in the moment. Barry took to the microphone to thank the audience instead. And, with his partners Andrew Mills and Jitendra Dalvi, led a toast to the competition.

Before I go on, congratulations to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice alliance, for a program that worked extremely well in every detail. And also to Philana Diaz, Yanette Jimenez, and hundreds of others involved. The logistics worked down to the last detail, the competitors were excellent, the event came off as a huge success.

Scientists? Yes, definitely. Barry’s already got the PhD and Andrew is finishing his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Texas, and did his first degree at Cal Tech. Their business, however, is clearly business first and science later. I had them in the semi-final round I judged and, after seeing them perform (a 15 minute presentation and 10 minutes of questions and answers) twice, I was glad to see them win the whole thing.

I’m on non-disclosure of course as a judge in a business plan contest, so I won’t describe this company in my own words. Here’s what the University of Texas Daily Texan said about Qcue last week:

In one year, the team has developed a program that will create an efficient resale market that box offices can control for entertainment tickets. Instead of buying tickets from second-party distributors like eBay, the team’s software allows the original box office to mediate the resale process.
For example, instead of the box office showing that tickets are sold out, it would wait to distribute tickets until just before the event. That way, people who want to re-sell their tickets can do so through the original box office. This prevents ticket prices from skyrocketing in the back-alley resale market.
"Our product would protect everyone involved and make sure the correct people are getting the money," said Kahn, a former economics graduate student and the CEO of Qcue.
The software would allow the price of tickets to fluctuate according to popularity, so the price for extremely popular tickets would increase while slow-selling tickets would drop in price.
"This is a way to return profits to event promoters and better protect consumers," Kahn said.

Qcue was an excellent choice for first place in my opinion, but they were hardly the only scientists with excellent businesses. That seemed to be a theme.

I’m so used to saying that the ideas themselves don’t make businesses that I have to take a step back from that general theme after watching a whole field of idea-driven businesses, and more than a dozen PhD-level scientists building very impressive business plans around their science. And lots of patents.

That was a clear theme in all three sub-events that I saw as a judge: the finals round Saturday afternoon, the wildcard Saturday morning, and a flight of six plans most of the day Friday. Patents, and PhDs. And medical doctors. Some of these are more public than others, but if you’re interested, you could check out Klymit from BYU, a new technology for ski jackets, whose product development person has a PhD degree (hardly the only one I’d mention, but I was able to find their website quickly, and that means I don’t have to worry about that non-disclosure).

Another theme was a high level of competition. All of the six teams that my group of judges saw in the semifinals had strong business plans. In the wildcard round, the six teams who finished second in their groups competed; I could have seen four of those six being chosen. In the finals, I could have seen three or even four of those teams winning, although the eventual winner, Qcue was a great choice.

One final note: during the awards banquet Brad put up a slide showing that 50% of past competitors in this contest were up and running as businesses. That’s a very strong showing. But I expect something like 90% of the teams I saw this year will make it. 

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