To Dean Nitin Nohria, Tuesday’s New Venture Competition was proof “entrepreneurship of all kinds can thrive” at Harvard Business School. One glance at the contest’s eight finalists, and the claim is hard to deny. From a mobile platform for self-storage rental to a sensor-based technology designed to monitor babies’ sleeping safety, the breadth of participants was one Professor William Sahlman, senior associate dean for external relations, would not have expected to see when he entered the school in 1973.
“The school’s commitment to entrepreneurship was tepid, at best,” Sahlman said, referring to his earliest days at the institution where he received his MBA.
He credited Professor Howard Stevenson for defining what “entrepreneurship” meant. By focusing on the word as a process, or way of managing people, entrepreneurship suddenly became more accessible. Stevenson said himself in an introductory video, “Opportunities are everywhere,” which Sahlman quoted, urging students: “This is the time. This is the responsibility of leaders. They have to engage in entrepreneurial action.”
The room, full of alumni and students, participated in the New Venture Competition to do just that.
Sponsored by Harvard Business School’s Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, the Social Enterprise Initiative and Alumni Relations, the contest was broken down into students and alumni, and had them both competing in two tracks: business and social enterprise.
The alumni award-winners were announced first. Walking away with the first-place $50,000 prize in the social enterprise track was Yaso Biotechnology, a private biopharmaceutical company focused on providing female-controlled contraceptives designed to help prevent sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.
In the business track, runner-up Bookalokal was granted $25,000 for their marketplace centered on local food experiences. The first-place prize of $50,000 was then awarded to Vaxess Technologies, which uses silk-derived proteins to stabilize vaccines without refrigeration. The company was the winner of the 2012 student business track and also went on to win first-place in the inaugural Harvard President’s Challenge.
Following the alumni awards, the stage was set for the eight student finalist teams. They were each tasked with delivering a 90-second pitch, giving the audience the chance to participate in the competition through a crowd favorite vote.
In the social enterprise track, the $2,000 crowd favorite prize went to WAVE Hospitality, also the winner of the $25,000 runner-up award. Through WAVE, West African youth are given access to employment opportunities through vocational training.
The $50,000 grand prize was given to Bluelight, which provides households in the developing world with alternatives to expensive credit. By partnering with large retailers, Bluelight is able to build a network of independent agents and track prepayments through their proprietary SMS-based database.
“We’re over the moon,” said Bluelight CFO Manoah Koletty following the win, acknowledging the team has been able to come so far due to various pitch contests.
Bluelight has already won five awards, including first-place in the 2012 Harvard Arab Weekend Pitch Competition, and is currently in the running as a finalist in the 2013 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge.
“The ecosystem is strong,” Koletty said, claiming their next step is to try and raise a seed round so they can move to Jordan for all of 2014 and launch Bluelight.
In the business track, Quickstor, the aforementioned mobile platform for self-storage rental, was named runner-up, walking away with $25,000.
The $50,000 first-place prize, as well as the $2,000 crowd favorite award, went to Tauros Engineering, however, a company currently commercializing a technology designed to detect bridge scour.
“This is nice validation,” said Co-Founder Adrian Ross, referring to both prizes. “People are already believing in us.”
Customers have started signing up for Tauros’ prototype, meaning the next step will be to deliver the product and make sure it works.
Ross commended the competition’s judges for their feedback–a sentiment that was echoed by Miki Heller of finalist Astoria Road, the first social wedding registry.
“[The competition] forces you to get your ideas down on paper,” Heller said, acknowledging the judges helped the team hone in on who their target audience is and think about the different aspects of their business in a more formalized way. “The judges shared concerns an investor might have.”
But, the judges also had to make a tough decision.
“I’m not sure how the judges compared a bridge company to a wedding registry,” Ross said.
Yet, that shows the depth the School now has. As Meredith McPherron, director of the Arthur Rock Center, told the crowd yesterday, “Fifty percent of you will, one day, become entrepreneurs.”
Harvard Business School isn’t all management, finance and consulting anymore.
For a look inside the New Venture Competition, check out the photos below.