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Lesa Mitchell

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Business Plan Competitions: Where The Ideas Are

Posted: 06/06/11 12:06 PM ET

It would be an understatement to say that business plan competitions are sweeping the country. They are sweeping every country.

The University of Trinidad and Tobago -- a new university, serving this tiny island nation from a campus still under construction -- already has sponsored its third annual UTT IDEAS Competition. Prize winners ranged from the "CyberGlove" bowling trainer to a new business model for privatized postal reform, which could be replicated in developing countries worldwide.

Rice University's business plan competition, one of the largest in the United States, accepts entries from anywhere. Entries this year included a startup with a technology for controlling the irrigation of farmers' fields in Pakistan, and a plan to "provide quality assurance services from the city of Tucuman, Argentina, to PC and video game publishers all over the world."

Within the U.S. alone, the range of ideas submitted to business competitions is amazing. Along with myriad plans for the next great Internet startup, there are plans built around new polymers and nanotech materials from university labs, plus promising ideas in medical care, and much more.

Now for the sad part. Most of the plans and ideas, including a lot of those judged to have a real shot at success, never come close to being tried in the marketplace. Every year, untold numbers of the best-laid business plans of bright graduate students and undergraduates will raise a small stir of excitement, but won't even be iterated to the next stage of development. And the reason isn't always a lack of funding.

Katie Petersen, a colleague of mine who runs Kauffman's iStart, a web-based platform for managing business competitions, has talked to numerous finalists at competitions. She says, "Whenever I see people with great ideas I'll ask them, 'Are you actually going to do this?' I'm surprised at how often the answer is no."

Some competitors "have no intention of starting a company in the first place," Katie says; they write a business plan mainly for the learning experience and the chance to earn recognition in a contest. Others feel they can't make the "total commitment" required for launching a startup, because of personal goals or duties that take priority in their lives, while still others would need expert assistance to go forward. As Katie notes, "Maybe they need a co-founder with particular skills, or a mentor."

So you may be thinking what Katie Petersen thinks: "If people aren't able to act on a good idea, why not let them hand it off to somebody who will run with it? Or connect them to a partner who can help?" That's exactly what iStart is doing, and it's part of a growing chain of meta-ideas all focused on the same idea: Too many innovations are sitting on the shelf; let's move them into use.

The recent evolution of iStart is a great example of the expanding resources out there for entrepreneurs and their innovations. What began as a software platform for universities and other organizations to customize, and use, to conduct their competitions efficiently has grown into an idea brokerage and networking hub for aspiring entrepreneurs looking for exposure, ideas, partners, and mentors. In less than a year since Kauffman launched the site, some 40 universities and public entities (including Rice and the University of Trinidad and Tobago) now use the platform for competitions, and more than 1,200 entrants have posted ideas. You can go to the site right now, browse their ideas by keyword or category, and then click to connect with the idea-holders--whether they are in Austin or Afghanistan.

And here's where things get really interesting. Some of the business ideas now being posted on iStart are, themselves, new ideas for brokering ideas. Or for connecting entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors with one another.

And that's just the beginning. As more competitions with more entrants come aboard, the goal is to build an online community where vastly more business ideas can move beyond the realm of the academic to the realm of IRL: existing In Real Life.

And then there's Flintbox. You've probably heard of the "shelf technologies" that are developed at university or government labs, but never commercialized. Many could at least have value as research tools, for instance, chemical compounds and computer programs that other scientists could use to move their own work along. In 2003, a group at the University of British Columbia launched a website called Flintbox, to help disseminate such innovations across Canada and elsewhere. Flintbox struck a spark and is now owned by a private firm.

Meanwhile, in 2006, Kauffman started a similar enterprise called the iBridge Network. iBridge has grown to have a searchable inventory of more than 15,000 technologies from over 128 universities and research labs.

We as a global society are reaching an exciting critical-mass stage. By making smart use of online networking, business competitions, and other social and economic tools at our disposal, we can accelerate the processes of innovation tremendously. We can develop new generations of meta-ideas--which the economist Paul Romer defined as "ideas about how to support the production and transmission of ideas."

As Katie Petersen puts it, the key first step is creating "transparency and access" to what our fellow humans are doing. That opens the door to new modes of collaborating. And let's not forget to harvest those ideas that are lying dormant. Great inventions and companies have often been built by combining, or re-purposing, ideas that never quite made it in some previous form. The opportunities are there; it's time to find them.