MIT is undoubtedly a leader in business plan competitions.
A recent survey showed ten of the companies it has spawned now have a combined value of more than $500 million. Bill Gates scooped one of the winning companies for $40 million. "Not bad for a school project," said Scott Blanksteen, the organiser of this year's MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Started ten years ago by students at the university, the competition is still run by students. Blanksteen, a second-year MBA student at MIT's Sloan Business School, juggles academic work with running the $50K competition, which he stresses is an "entrepreneurship, not a business plan" competition. "We want people to go out there and start companies," he said.
This year's competition has attracted 150 separate ideas, with more than 600 participants from 19 academic departments. Anyone at the university can enter - the only rule being that each team must include at least one full-time student. Expert recruits from outside the university are allowed.
In the first stages, teams provide rough four-page business plans outlining their ideas.
For help in drafting the plans, they can attend seminars and lectures on writing plans, recruiting expertise, protecting intellectual property or even undertaking web commerce. Entrants gain valuable experience whether or not they take their plans any further.
The 150 entries are now being whittled down to 40 semi-finalists, who will then be matched with a mentor. "We do a lot of work matching mentors with each team," said Blanksteen, who will hold a party over the next few weeks when mentors and team members meet. The mentors are mostly MIT alumni with expertise in some area of start-ups.
Last year's competition had two winners. Since winning in May, one team, Direct Hit Technology, has had to move twice to cope with its rapid expansion and is having no problems attracting venture funding.
The team's mentor was a former competition winner who built a company from his 1991 business plan idea. He sold the company for $13 million and then took several years out to study music, before deciding to get involved again in the competition. He was so impressed with the team he was mentoring that he joined them and has now won the competition again.