Business plan competitions are valuable opportunities for student entrepreneurs to put principles into practice. Competitors hone their pitches, network with investors and industry leaders, and can potentially win the startup cash and services they need to get their businesses off the ground.
Below, you’ll find the graduate level programs that offer the largest cash awards. (Figures are from the 2014–15 academic year.)
1. Rice University (Houston, TX)
Total cash awarded: $1,228,350
Together with the Jones Graduate School of Business, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosts the annual intercollegiate Rice Business Plan Competition -- the largest and richest graduate student startup competition in the world. Several courses at Rice provide an opportunity to write a plan for a new venture, and students compete in an internal competition to earn the right to compete in the main event. This year over 225 judges (the majority coming from the investment sector) evaluated the pitches of 42 teams from across the world all competing for the chance to win more than $1 million in cash and prizes. All 42 teams win at least one cash award along with the opportunity to meet potential investors and get personalized feedback from entrepreneurs and industry leaders.
In addition to the RBPC, other annual competitions at Rice include the “OWL Open,” and all-Rice student startup competition, the “Owl Tank” competition modeled on the TV show Shark Tank, the Rice Undergraduate Venture Challenge, and “90 Second Thesis,” an elevator pitch competition for PhD candidates across schools.
2. University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK)
Total cash awarded: $940,000
The Sooner Launch Pad hosts the biannual New Venture Pitch Competition in Tulsa, OK, and is open to University of Oklahoma students from all disciplines and academic levels. Teams present both elevator pitches and long-form pitches to an expert panel of judges from the OU and surrounding business community. The New Venture Pitch Competition ends with a networking reception, where students discuss their ventures further with local entrepreneurs, investors, and experts.
OU students also regularly compete in the Oklahoma Governor’s Cup and the Tri-State competitions, which invites the first- and second-place winners of collegiate business plan competitions in Arkansas, Nevada, and Oklahoma to compete for or cash prizes totaling $118,000. Students spend 18 months identifying ideas, performing market research, conducting patent searches, exploring and building prototypes, running financial analyses and break-evens, all leading up to this competition.
3. Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO)
Total cash awarded: $418,000
Run by the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University, the Skandalaris Center Cup (formerly the Olin Cup) is open to current students, post-docs, and recent graduates of the University. Regular deliverables, workshops, and training sessions held throughout the course of the competition lead participants through the process of recruiting team members, fine tuning their elevator pitches, and presenting to the judges, who are experienced investors in early stage ventures. At the minimum, teams who complete the competition will received feedback from the expert panel at every step along the way.
Students can also compete at IdeaBounces®, held multiple times each semester, through which students post their ideas to an online network of creators, investors, and mentors, present their ideas a “open mic” pitch events, and potentially win cash prizes and private mentoring sessions from St. Louis area entrepreneurs.
4. The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)
Total cash awarded: $178,000
The McCombs School of Business’s major competition each year is the annual Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition (formerly known as Moot Corps™ Competition.), through which 20–25 teams compete for cash and prizes. The VLIC is open to any graduate student from the University of Texas in the process of launching a business. At the end of the competition, winners get consulting time with Rob Adams, the director of the John Brumley Texas Venture Labs. The goal of VLIC is to teach students how to get operating companies off the ground and the competition often includes participants who’ve taken the New Venture Creation course at UT Austin.
For those interested in technology-focused entrepreneurship, the Idea to Product UT Austin Competition, or I2P®, is student-run and open to UT Austin students of all disciplines. Teams present assessments of their products and services to a panel of judges—all with an emphasis on the unique and innovative.
5. Temple University (Philadelphia, PA)
Total cash awarded: $161,500
The Be Your Own Boss Bowl® is an annual business plan competition hosted by the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple University. The goal of the competition is for participants to discover the ins and outs of entrepreneurship, network with fellow innovators and mentors, and learn how to pen a strategic business plan. Along the way the IEI hosts free workshops aimed to get BYOBB participants in tip top shape. Grand prize is $40,000 along with professional services and admission to the IEI accelerator.
In the fall IEI sponsors the Innovative Idea Competition, through which participants submit plans for innovative products, technologies, and services -- any of which could be foundation for a new business. Unlike BYOBB, non-profit ideas are eligible. After the initial submission stage, finalists pitch their ideas live with the potential of winning a $2,500 award (among other cash prizes), and the opportunity to present their idea to an accelerator and an early stage investor. Both competitions are open to Temple students, faculty, staff, and alumni across all 17 schools and colleges.