Are young entrepreneurs out to change the world? That was the impression I got last month when I served as a judge at the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition at the University of Texas at Austin. This was my first time at the Venture Labs competition, where 37 teams from 13 countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Singapore and Thailand) competed for a prize package worth $135,000. This was the 29th annual competition.
Grand prize winner NuMat Technologies, which hails from Northwestern University in Illinois, is a clean energy company that "designs and creates high-performance materials to store clean fuels and produce them on a large scale for industry."
A quick glance at the other winning teams -- third runner-up Sustainable Agriculture Solutions from Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, second runner-up Ischiban from the University of Cincinnati and the first runner-up Athena Laboratories from the University of Texas at Austin -- shows business concepts taking on serious challenges like medical concerns or protecting crop nutrients using nanotechnology. NuMat Technologies' mission, to "enable world-changing clean energy technologies" underscored the profound issues addressed by the competing teams.
In the session I judged, the teams pitching also focused on tackling serious issues. Education was a big concern. One man wanted to start his own college in Australia, while another intended to revolutionize GED education here in the United States.
The team that won that session, Innovostics, from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, had created a medical breakthrough device that instantly diagnoses fever to show whether a patient had a viral, bacterial or parasitic infection -- a life-saving necessity in third-world nations.
Also taking on third-word challenges was Timamu Food Solutions from Colorado State University, who were focused on helping children in Africa. They had created a more nutritious porridge flour to help fight malnutrition throughout east Africa. (Porridge is already a key food for the babies of east Arica, but the Timamu group had fortified their version with key vitamins and nutrients.)
One of my fellow judges had been judging the Venture Labs Investment competition for several years noted that the pitches of the teams in our session were "more global in scope" than he'd seen in previous years. And, he added, they were “more about touching human lives.
The Venture Labs Investment Competition is the oldest new venture competition in the world, and is sponsored by Jon Brumley Texas Venture Labs at The University of Texas. Rob Adams, the Venture Labs Investment Competition Director and a fellow member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors, says the contest "provides MBA student teams with a chance to simulate the real world process of raising venture capital. The judges function as an investment group seeking to reach consensus on the business venture they would most likely fund."
I admit I was a bit surprised at the real-world focus of the competing teams. I was expecting more social media platforms or consumer concepts. But I was heartened, and impressed, by how these (mostly) Millennials were focused on more than just making money. Make no mistake, this isn't a non-profit competition -- the teams intend to turn a profit. But it's not just about the money. It is about the common good as well. As Tim Berry, the founder of Palo Alto Software (and a longtime judge) told me, these students were "more about changing the world than changing the Web." And that's a shift that's hard to argue with.
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