Pitch Preparation Pays Off for Student Teams at Big Idea Competition

Student teams from The University of Texas at Dallas showed recently that winning a business pitch competition requires having not just a great idea but also the preparation, passion and tools needed to convince others — including celebrity judge Tan France — that the idea is worth pursuing.

Six graduate and undergraduate teams competed for $60,000 in cash and scholarship awards Nov. 12 in front of 1,200 attendees at the 12th annual UT Dallas Big Idea Competition (BIC) finals, presented by the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Sponsors included Interlock Partners and Bioworld.

From left: Former law enforcement officer Robert Griffin, UT Dallas alumnus Lewis Zhang, student Brian Hoang and alumnus Marwan Kodeih present a pitch for a virtual reality tool that trains police officers. SurviVR won the $25,000 grand prize.    

“The amount of energy that the presenters portrayed and the preparation they put into it — you could really tell that they’d put in a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears. They really knew their product; they knew their business,” said D. Alex Robertson, one of the seven competition judges and an associate attorney at Vinson & Elkins, another event sponsor. “That’s what really impressed me.”

SurviVR, a virtual reality tool that trains police officers by startup company Immosis, won the $25,000 grand prize. The team included School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication alumnus Lewis Zhang BA’16, computer science graduate Marwan Kodeih BS’18 and Brian Hoang, a software engineering senior in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“The beautiful thing about pitching is that it teaches you how to systematically break down your business, analyze it and convey it to an audience,” said Hoang, who led the team’s presentation. “That’s the purpose of a pitch: It’s to persuade an audience to believe in you and your product as much as possible.”

Hoang, a recent Texas Business Hall of Fame Scholarship recipient and student in the Naveen Jindal School of Management (JSOM) Startup Launch Funding program, said that preparing for a pitch boils down to hard work and “practice, practice, practice.” He said he worked 80-hour weeks to prepare for BIC and DisrupTexas, a University of Texas at Austin student pitch competition where his team earned the $5,000 third-place prize.

Kevin Lam (center), with Tan France, Jeff Williams, Samantha Colletti and Jason Story, celebrates the second-place prize for Cyto PDMS. The biomedical engineering doctoral student made a pitch for a medical device that would help fight diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Cyto PDMS won the $10,000 second-place BIC prize for an idea for a low-cost medical device that promises to transform common human cells into specialized cells that can fight heart attacks and diseases such as muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s and liver disease.

Biomedical engineering PhD candidate Kevin Lam delivered the pitch for Cyto PDMS. He sees passion as a primary ingredient for the hard work needed to perfect a product and the subsequent pitch.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the skills (or) the knowledge as long as you have the passion to do what you want,” he said.

Sahai took the third-place $5,000 award for a smart eyeglasses idea that could help people with vision loss improve their mobility by reducing the risk of accidents, overhead injuries or falls.

Founder Maithreya Chakravarthula BS’16, a Jindal School information technology and systems graduate, noted that the resources available to UT Dallas student entrepreneurs at the Blackstone LaunchPad (BLP) and in the JSOM entrepreneurship academic programs greatly helped him prepare for his winning pitch.

“If you’re getting into business, the most important thing is being able to communicate the idea — and that is the toughest challenge,” he said. “My mentors at BLP and JSOM have been really helpful in focusing on what I needed at this point. Entrepreneurs tend to dream a lot bigger and be a lot more ambitious. Having mentors helps you stay grounded.”

We’re seeing much greater levels of traction in our contestants. These student companies don’t just have the product or service but the customers, too.

Steve Guengerich, executive director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UT Dallas

Other finalists were Code Blue Jewelry, a company that makes fashionable medical ID bracelets, necklaces and accessories, which took home a $5,000 Innovate(her) prize for best idea from a woman-founded business; Thread AI, a company that offers low-cost foot-traffic analytics hardware and data warehousing, which won a $5,000 prize for best undergraduate idea; and Momo Shack, which makes Himalayan dumplings.

In addition to serving as a judge, France — designer and style guru on the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series Queer Eye — engaged in a conversation about entrepreneurship led by master of ceremonies J-Si Chavez of The Kidd Kraddick Morning Show. RevTech Ventures underwrote France’s appearance.

The other judges were Samantha Colletti, senior vice president at Silicon Valley Bank; Bryan DeLuca, vice president of marketing and consumer engagement at Bioworld; Nate Nelson, senior director at event sponsor Point B; School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics alumna Rebecca Poynter BS’86; and Jason Story, a partner at Interlock Partners.

Poynter, co-founder of OnPoynt Aerial Solutions and 2017 UTDesign Startup Challenge winner, made her choices based in part on the competitors’ poise.

After the competition, students and volunteers, including Layla Ali, lined up for photographs with celebrity judge Tan France.

“When a team has practiced for the tough questions, and they’re willing to take and answer (them), it shows that they’ve thought through their idea and (made) sure it’s got a business-worthy case in front of it,” she said.

In addition to the main contestants, two startups led by former UT Dallas students received special recognition awards. SeeBoost, co-founded by Russ Lemberg BS’12, received an award for biggest social impact for a product that corrects for serious macular degeneration and other eye diseases. Aireal, founded by Kevin J. Hart, won the prize for biggest idea for its patented, global software platform for augmented reality. Both teams took home $5,000 prizes.

Steve Guengerich, executive director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said he was not surprised to see such a high level of competition this year. He partly attributed it to the elevated visibility of the Big Idea Competition and the Jindal School’s entrepreneurship programs in recent years.

“We’re seeing much greater levels of traction in our contestants,” he said. “These student companies don’t just have the product or service but the customers, too — in some cases, hundreds of them. Those at the top of the judges’ list either had that greater amount of traction and had shown it through their sales and delivery execution, or else had a proven MVP (minimum viable product) with a big market to come. That’s what it takes to win these days, whether you’re competing on a UT Dallas stage or in a Silicon Valley boardroom.”

Entrepreneurship Programs Earn Kudos from Princeton Review

Just one day after the competition, the Princeton Review, in association with Entrepreneur magazine, released its ranking of the Top Schools for Entrepreneurship in 2019. The Jindal School placed well in both the graduate and undergraduate rankings.

The Princeton Review, a college admission services company that offers test preparation, published its ranking based on surveys from more than 300 schools. The Jindal School’s Master of Science in Innovation and Entrepreneurship program came in at No. 11, up from No 19 a year ago.

The Jindal School’s undergraduate Innovation and Entrepreneurship Concentration appeared on the list for the first time, debuting at No. 23.

“These rankings are a testament to our school’s leadership team for their strategic guidance and help in funding our programs,” said Madison Pedigo, director of the innovation and entrepreneurship programs at the Jindal School. “I’m proud of our faculty and staff for their hard work and dedication.”

Media Contact: Jimmie Markham, Naveen Jindal School of Management, (972) 883-5079, [email protected], or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].