Tucked into this year's Fortune 500 issue is a short article on the annual Rice University Business Plan Super Bowl. With $1.3 million in cash, equity, and advice in play, this contest is one of the world's most prestigious and richest competitions for budding entrepreneurs. It also provides some insight into what MBAs and VCs are excited about today.
If these entrepreneurs are our future business titans, then I'm feeling pretty good about where we're headed. In short, next-gen leaders want to build businesses that solve sustainability problems. Here are a few of the 6 winners profiled in Fortune.
- 3rd Place: PK Clean from MIT designed a factory that converts carbon-containing waste like plastic into fuel.
- 4th Place: cycleWoodPlastics from The University of Arkansas developed a biodegradable plastic bag to replace grocery bags, which are increasingly being banned around the world.
- 5th Place: SmarterShade from The University of Notre Dame created an elegant technology that adjusts the tint on windows, saving on building cooling costs by preventing heat gain.
- 1st Place. TNG Pharmaceuticals from The University of Louisville developed a vaccine for a parasite that strikes cattle, costing the dairy and beef industry over1 billion a year. The winning team pointed out that, compared with the current industry "solution" of ear tags to mark the sick cattle, their method is cheaper and "greener" (it reduces pesticide use and increases milk production, thus making the industry more efficient and saving lots of energy).
The other winners, FYI, were a better human authentication tool for websites and a material science innovation, a heat-resistant filter made from titanium dioxide.
So out of the six winners, call it three (and part of the TNG pitch) were green-focused. I'd say that three and a half out of six is a darn good ratio in a competition that was not intended as a sustainability contest. And these entrepreneurs are working on some of our biggest problems -- buildings represent about 40% of all energy use and emissions, waste is the new frontier in fuel sourcing, and the cattle industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the outcome of this year's contest, perhaps what the judges and competitors are telling us is that every competition needs to be about sustainability now. We're facing a tough future for our species if we don't turn the power of all of our institutions -- business, government, academia, NGOs, and communities -- toward solving our biggest challenges. Luckily for all of us, these bright young minds, our future business leaders, are excited to tackle these problems (and make gobs of money doing it).
But let me leave you with two main questions if you're a current business leader:
- Are you ready to innovate and find solutions for our toughest sustainability challenges?
- Will you be able to attract the best and brightest talent to your organization if you're not?
(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)