About 250 spectators came to the annual Dean’s Business Competition at the MIX on the Fairfax Campus to see would-be entrepreneurs compete for more than $30,000 in cash and in-kind gifts in a “Shark Tank” setting. This year, organizers from Mason’s School of Business’ Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship opened the field to student entrepreneurs from other universities in the region.
Each individual or team had five minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of regional business leaders and explain what next steps were needed to establish a viable business.
There were three categories of competition—VSGI Mobile Game Design, Social Entrepreneurship and Traditional Business. Prize money or in-kind gifts—such as free lab time for computer game entrepreneurs—varied with the categories.
The big winner in the Traditional Business category was a team of graduating seniors from Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, with a service for inspecting ski lifts at ski resorts by use of drones and aerial videography.
Not only did the team win $10,000 for their INSPEX service, but as the company is also their class project, they’ll also receive a grade.
INSPEX CEO and systems engineering major Katie Barthelson said the team will use the prize money to develop the software for the service.
Runner up and winner of $5,000 was MicroInvestigate, a direct-to-consumer diagnostic station and the brainchild of a team from American University. Veiled Beaut, a Muslim apparel business launched by Mason students and founders Sana Mahmood and Abdullah Baig, was a Mason favorite but did not win.
Mahood’s reaction to not collecting the prize money was just what the organizers wanted to hear: “It makes me want to work harder,” she said. “We’ve already talked about what we could do better the next time we make a pitch.”
And that was the point of the five-and-a-half-hour competition, said Mason assistant professor and entrepreneur in residence James Wolfe.
“There is huge value for the students,” he said. “For some this is the first time they’ve stood up in front of an audience to make this kind of pitch. For others, they’ve done this a before and it’s actually a chance to get cash.”
For 21st-century business people, he said, pitching “is part of modern life. The academics call it conceptual selling: You’re selling an idea, not a gizmo.”
Business competitions have been around since the late 1970s but have become increasingly popular as venture capitalists hunt for the next big thing and TV’s “Shark Tank” continues to enjoy popularity, said David Miller, assistant professor and executive director of Mason’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Competitions help prepare students to wow a panel of judges as well as hone their ideas, he said.
“You get presentation skills and all the skills that an entrepreneur needs, but even if you don’t make the finals, you have to give answers to questions such as who is your customer segment, what kind of financing do you need over the next 12 or 24 months?” Miller said. “For a lot of these students, they’ve never thought about that. This is an experience to get them on their journey.”
Associate professor of music and director of Mason’s athletic bands, including the Green Machine, Michael “Doc Nix” Nickens gave the keynote speech, recapping his early life and demonstrating on tuba how innovation and building your own brand is vital in creating a meaningful career.
This year’s winners:
INSPEX, Katie Barthelson, Miguel Mitra, Shallu Darhele and Pritioka Sondhi, $10,000MicroInvestigate, Megan Nelson and Alex McCargo (American University), $5,000
“BeBrave,” Grace Imhoff and Alaeldin Tirba (American University), $5,000“Celise,” Cameron Ross (American University), $2,500
VSGI Mobile Game Design
“Leo’s Lighthouse,” David Martell, $10,000-worth of development time“The Wizard of Murandabo,” Amber Harlow, $5,000-worth of development time
Two Tree Outfitters, James Johnson, $2,000“BeBrave,” Grace Imhoff and Alaeldin Tirba (American University), $1,000