College students who want to start a company while still in school are getting a jump on the process by competing in contests now held by several universities.
To play, they have to come up with a business idea or plan. Then they get the chance to try it out, often in front of judges who are venture capitalists or other types of investors.
The prizes, in many cases: funds to help turn it into an actual business.
USC senior Nick Smith's team entered an idea for a small sail that could be used by skateboarders and skiers.
"We want to use the money to explore a more abrasion-resistant fabric for a pro model," said Smith, 22, whose Sporting-Sails start-up was one of the three entries to win a $12,500 top prize this month at a schoolwide competition for new venture ideas.
The nylon sail is designed to help extreme skateboarders and skiers slow their descents and increase their maneuverability. A version of the product is already sold online, but the business needs funding to buy fabric for a new version, Smith said.
The contests are "an extremely safe-haven environment for students to get a real glimmer of what it's going to take to start and launch a business," said Bryce Benjamin, chief executive in residence at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC's Marshall School of Business.
The Marshall School is working on a contest aimed at digital media applications, with $50,000 to $100,000 in prize money, Benjamin said. And the new Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism is hosting new-media design competitions with $25,000 in prize money.
Also at USC, the Viterbi School of Engineering will host a contest with about $50,000 in prizes.
Even those who don't win get something valuable: feedback from the investors who serve as judges. And everyone gets to network.
"We made a lot of connections, although, honestly, over the past week we made so many I can't remember them all," said Justin Lewis, 21, a senior at USC. He was part of another team that won a top prize at the recent USC competition. The idea: PlayOnSocial, which would let users log in to online games and websites through their existing social-network accounts.
Rice University in Houston has one of the biggest business-plan competitions. It's intercollegiate, and this year it got more than 420 applications, vying to compete for a share of $1 million in prizes. In 2001 the prizes totaled only $10,000.
"We have seen tremendous growth in interest in business-plan competitions from students," said Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.
Not-for-profit support groups have been popping up to help competition-bound students, both on campus and off. They include the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization, which has several local chapters, and IStart, which tracks student business-plan competitions.
IStart itself was founded by students, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which funds research and creates programs, helped it grow.
"We really want to make sure this leads to intentional firm creation," said Nick Seguin, manager of entrepreneurship programs at the Kauffman Foundation.
Crafting a real business was certainly a goal of the USC contest's third winning team, made up of alumnus David Radcliff, 28, and graduate student Natalia Bogolasky, 29. They plan to create a website with travel information for people with disabilities. It will include tips on what to expect at arrival points of various locales.
The idea was inspired by the experiences of Radcliff, who has cerebral palsy.
"We know those judges aren't sitting there just to hear messages of social change," Radcliff said. "They want to hear if this is an actual business."