I just spent three days judging the 2013 Rice Business Plan Competition at Rice University in Houston, Texas as part of the team sent from Trailblazer Capital.

The RBPC is the largest and most rewarding business plan competition in the world, providing teams with more than $1.5MM in investment prizes, including this year a $350,000 grand prize. No kidding!

This year, we saw business plans from university students from Kenya, the UK and Canada, in addition to universities across the US.

IMAG1233_smallThese teams were, of course, among the best from their regions and among the best student-run startups in the world. It was really an amazing competition and an amazing process.

The overriding message that I got from the event was that investors are back in the saddle and ready to ride. There were a large number of engaged angel investors and venture firms represented at the event. This was refreshing and encouraging.

The competition 2013 had a focus on clean tech, including battery tech and conservation, and on biotech, with medical devices and research management leading the way. There were also several “other” companies, including a couple of oil and gas tech companies and some consumer and retail startups.

Overall, the focus was on high-tech, intellectual property-driven, high-leverage businesses. Most teams had one or more PhDs involved, multiple patents and some had a million dollars or more in prior grand funding for primary research.

Of course, in a competition driven by students, there are going to be some business plans presented that are unlikely to become the team’s full-time job. There were some plans that, once you dive into them, need a lot of thought and development to become viable.

But, at the same time, I am 100% certain that there were at least a half a dozen companies at the competition, among the 42, that will be growth businesses within 24-months, and maybe even leaders in their industries.

Among the judges and attendees, in addition to dozens of venture capital partners, there were also corporate venture investment arms representing companies like Shell, Total, Statoil and others. These companies know that these startups could be nurturing the ideas, concepts and technologies that will be driving their industries in 10 years, so they support these competitions heartily.

And so was VentureSpur, supporting the competition by providing judging and feedback for these startups, while recruiting likely candidates into our upcoming 2013 accelerator program. (www.VentureSpur.com/Apply).

We participated as part of the Trailblazer Capital team, and so helped to select and award the $50,000 Trailblazer Prize – which went to SiNode, an innovative battery technology company.

The world has seen a lot of battery startups over the last 10 years – while nothing has had a massive impact, yet and my cellphone continues to die unexpectedly – but these guys were the real deal. If anybody can make a difference in battery technology in the near-term, it was this technology and this team.

In addition, several of these startup teams had the smarts to change their presentations dramatically over the three days of the competition. I’d estimate that one team changed their presentation content by 50% between their first practice presentation on Thursday to their final presentation on Saturday. They were responding to judge and investor questions with new content and new discussion, and doing it very effectively. I had a chance to sit down and interview this company at length one-on-one, and while their startup will require a lot of development to become viable, there was a solid kernel of value and IP at the heart of what they were trying to build.

The take-away for VentureSpur followers? A few startup investment pitch tips:

  • Get involved! Take every opportunity to present, present, present! Get all the feedback you can get for your business plan. If you’re not a student, take other opportunities to present. Until you’re doing that regularly, you’re not serious about your business.
  • Be professional. Practice until you’ve got it memorized and then practice some more. Talk to investors and learn how to present to them. There are best practices for making a presentation. Success isn’t random. Learn the stuff.
  • The investors will dig into your plan, deeply. Anticipate the questions and have backup slides to explain your answers. Make it look easy.
  • Answer questions quickly, succinctly and honestly. The CEO of the winning team had worked in the White House. You could tell instantly that he was accustomed to making presentations to people who had zero time to waste and expected instant answers to their questions. He delivered and he won. Making a great presentation isn’t actually rocket science. It just takes focus and practice. (I also got a chance to talk to that team in-depth, one-on-one and that was eye-opening.)
  • Offer a speedy time to market. Get your basic research done using non-dilutive grant money and show up to pitch with a prototype, if possible. Don’t ask investors to fund basic research, ever!
  • Pursue patents! That used to be optional. It isn’t anymore.
  • Always keep in mind where your risks are and work to explain and mitigate them. Every startup has risks. Don’t try to hide them or let them unnerve you. Just disclose and mitigate. (Every business could take that lesson to heart!)
  • Snatch low-hanging fruit in your highest probability markets. Have letters of intent, beta testers and other proof-of-concept and go-to-market groundwork completed. Don’t expect to compete if you haven’t taken these steps.

Overall, a great experience. Thanks Brad Burke and the whole Rice Alliance team for making us very welcome and for pulling off an amazing event, for the 13th year!

Looking forward to seeing these companies develop and to seeing what happens next year!