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University Encourages Students to Start Companies, Rewards Best Business Plans - 2003-05-26

Most students go to college to learn the skills they'll need for their post-graduate careers, but the University of Maryland encourages students to start their own companies while they're still taking classes. Each year, the school rewards the best business ideas with cash.

This is the moment of truth for a select group of innovators and future entrepreneurs. The University of Maryland Business Plan competition will determine which of their companies has the best chance of succeeding or would benefit most from a start-up contribution. The judges venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs themselves have spent months reviewing business plans, looking for those with the winning potential.

"The criteria that I am going to be looking at personally is the problem that the business is addressing. What market problem is it? What's their proposed solution? And why at the end of the day they want us to believe that they are going to be the winners here. It's pretty simple."
"I always sum it up by saying it is simply a combination of market, technology, management team and the economics of the deal. How much money needs to go in for what type of successful business."

They have narrowed the field down to six semifinalists. They are all technology companies, but that's where the similarities end.

Rohit Kumar's company, called Terplicators, has created new software for three-dimensional plastic molding. The program can help make everything from plastic handles for power tools to toys. Rohit says it's much faster and cheaper than what the competition offers. "We automate the complete process, the design process," he says. "So it's a better, faster and cheaper tool for the designer. So the automating the design helps save the designer's time so that the design time is no longer the bottleneck in the mold production industry."

Rohit Kumar adds that many big name companies, including Black and Decker have already said they intend to buy the modeling software when it is made available.

Jason Volk and several of his classmates are involved in Alertus technologies. They've designed a wireless emergency early warning system that sends data to an unlimited number of tiny receivers via the FM airwaves. Jason says using part of the FM signal is the perfect way to send out emergency information. "When we contemplated founding the company, we realized that there was a lot of information available leading up to emergencies, but no effective means to disseminate that information. So we proceeded then to develop a wireless communications system to disseminated emergency warning information," he says. "Our target market is specifically closed communities. That means large government organizations, large corporate campuses. Anywhere there is a concentrated population. We're dedicated information providers."

The company has already received some grant funding and has some potential clients lined up.

Rogue Amoeba Software sells its audio software program, AudioHiJack, directly to consumers through its website. Co-founder Paul Kafasis says that AudioHiJack is designed to record and improve the sound of CDs, radio and other broadcasts. "Actually the major feature of it is that it lets you record anything. A lot of people like to tune into things like BBC broadcasts on the web. Since it is in England it is five hours off our time, so there's timed recordings so you can record anything at any hour of the day," he says.

Unlike any of the other semifinalists, Rogue Amoeba Software is actually profitable right now. Paul says that the company averages $700 in sales of Audio HiJack each day and most of that is pure profit since nobody in the company has taken a salary yet. However, judge Robert Cerbone says profitability is not necessarily an advantage in this competition. "I think it's great if your company is making money, because that shows that the product or service that you're contemplating is technically feasible. And its fantastic, but that does not hinder a positive or negative decision on behalf of the judges, because even a profitable company could need capital to scale their operations beyond what their looking at today," he says.

The other semi-finalists are Castle Duncan, a firm trying to build and market safer All Terrain Vehicles. Cermet Solutions, which is developing new lightweight materials for bullet proof vests and armored vehicles. And Creative Photonics, which is using light to improve the speed of computer chips.

In addition to submitting their business plans, all the contestants must make a presentation and answer questions posed by the judges.

And when it was all over, the Terplicators had beaten the competition. Rohit Kumar was understandably very excited about his company's victory. "This is the first time I've entered a competition like this. The first time I faced so many people and spoken about and idea. So I'm really thrilled," he says.

The grand prize comes at a critical time for Rohit. He is about to receive his Master's degree in mechanical engineering and doesn't plan on getting a Ph.D. at the present time. Since he's attending the University of Maryland on a student Visa, he'll have to return to India next year. But he says this award will allow him to gain critical work experience and begin marketing his software to American companies.