Venture: A business school shark tank for aspiring CEOs

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has long been known for finance and number-crunching. Now, it's becoming known as a place for budding entrepreneurs as well.

June 13, 2011

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(Flickr/Ben Casawood)
The University of Chicago's Booth School is developing a reputation for churning out newly minted CEOs.
(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
Matt Maloney and Mike Evans, founders of GrubHub, a web site for ordering takeout.
(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
Nik Abraham and Matt Kopko, founders of the digital coursebook company, Sibylus.

It’s graduation season – and lots of grads are hitting the job market. But some are choosing an opposite direction - they're hatching their own companies – hoping to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a course on how to do exactly that is now one of the hottest things on campus.

Michael Toporek is trying to be kind. He's an investment manager helping judge an early round of the New Venture Challenge. That’s a competition and a class at the Booth School of Business. Teams of students present their ideas to investors, and the winners take home thousands of dollars to help run their companies.

Toporek is telling a team they're kind of lacking gumption.  

MICHAEL TOPOREK: if you really think that those numbers are true, I would shake your hand, thank you, think you were intelligent and wish you the best of luck.

Rafi Aviav is one of the students explaining their idea for investment strategy software. He tries to defend his team's financial projections but then commits a cardinal sin – he admits they lowballed the numbers.

AVIAV: We're always encouraged to be ambitious and accurate, I think, but we really were quite conservative.
STEVE KAPLAN: You guys have to leave.
WAVERLY DEUTSCH: You're not allowed to use that word.
 
It's early April, and the teams are still a bit rough around the edges. And the stakes are high – By the end of May, when the top 10 teams go to the finals, $75,000 in prize money hangs in the balance.

Aviav originally came to Booth from Israel to study finance but contracted startup fever.

AVIAV: I have a good friend, who's Uzi Shmilovici, who started PipeJump and was in last year's competition and just recruited $1 million from VCs, so to me, Chicago is just an amazing place and a real hotbed for entrepreneurship.

Business plan competitions are nothing new.  More than 50 universities have them, including top schools like Harvard and Wharton. But for a school like Booth that's been known for its focus on number-crunching and finance, the increasing popularity of entrepreneurship is dramatic.

More than 65 companies have emerged from the New Venture Challenge in the past 15 years. They've raised about $150 million in venture capital. A third of that has come in the past year alone.

Steve Kaplan is one of the professors who runs the course. He says it's not much like any other class.

KAPLAN: I don't really teach anything.

Instead he pushes the students to figure stuff out on their own – and not just on paper. The best companies in the class are already up and running, with students juggling tests and customers at the same time. He says the students are the ones in the driver's seat, but:

KAPLAN: We give them premium gasoline so they can go faster than they would have gone if they weren't doing the class.

That includes recruiting judges from Chicago's top venture capital firms. Lon Chow is a general partner with Apex Venture Partners, which manages a $140 million fund. He says the New Venture Challenge has opened his mind to investing in companies started by students.

CHOW: The last thing you want to do is have a bunch of newly minted MBAs learn on your dime about starting businesses, and I think they've done a phenomenal job of just improving, attracting really talented students.

And those students are going off and creating real companies.

MATT MALONEY: These are all people who are getting restaurant menus and entering them into the web site, and then behind you is some phone sales.

Matt Maloney is giving me a tour of his company – you may have heard of it – GrubHub, a web site for ordering takeout. He and co-founder Mike Evans won the New Venture Challenge in 2006. But Maloney says almost no one would have picked them as winners in the beginning.

MALONEY: When we went in, we were just two young scrappy entrepreneurs thinking we had the greatest idea ever, so we got up for our first presentation and pretty much said, here it is, isn't it great? And they all kind of resoundingly said, 'What the hell are you talking about?'

He says they needed to show how they could make money on each transaction. So they went back to the drawing board, retooled their presentation and won. Now they've raised more than $34 million in venture capital.

The GrubHub guys are legends to current Booth students like Nik Abraham.

NIK ABRAHAM: Yeah, you kick it off by saying we're Sibylus and then introduce everyone and then Ingram will start.

It's a Sunday afternoon, and Abraham and four other students are holed up in a classroom rehearsing.

MATT KOPKO: Alright, hey guys, I'm Matt, this is Ingram, this is Julian, Nik and Jason here and we're Sibylus. We're doing essentially digital coursepacks.

Their company is called Sibylus – yes, they know it sounds like syphilis and they're trying to come up with another name. But they're more certain of the concept – circumventing the expensive collections of newspaper and journal articles called coursepacks that professors make them buy for almost every class. Their company searches databases and the internet to provide students with links to the articles for much less money. And they're already in business – they sold 200 coursepacks to fellow Booth students this semester. Abraham says the idea for the company arose from a universal gripe.

ABRAHAM: Students sign up for classes, they go to the bookstore, they complain about waiting in line and paying all this money, they come back to the Winter Garden and have lunch with their friends and everyone will be complaining about it. So that's when I realized so many people are experiencing this pain, there's definitely something we can do about it.

Since they launched in March, Abraham says running the business has eclipsed everything in their lives. His team is part of a trend toward entrepreneurship that accelerated as the economy worsened. According to the Kauffman Foundation, last year the percentage of people who started businesses was at its highest in 15 years.  As for the New Venture Challenge, Abraham says they'd love to win, but what they really want is a successful company.

ABRAHAM: It would not be a good outcome if we won the NVC and flopped.
Turns out, they cross the first hurdle and make it to the finals.

There, they face some stiff competition.

SWINGBYTE INTRO: Good afternoon, thank you for your time and for the opportunity to introduce you to Swingbyte, a revolutionary golf training device using your smartphone, tablet and computer,
LINEJUMP: We are LineJump – a mobile application that allows you to open and close a tab from your smartphone.
AGILE DIAGNOSIS: Good afternoon, we are Agile Diagnosis and we develop web and mobile applications that help doctors and nurses more accurately and efficiently diagnose their patients.

After each presentation, judges mingle with students, swapping business cards and maybe sowing the seeds for potential investments. I chat with the folks behind Agile Diagnosis, the company that makes medical software. Jon Lee is studying to become a doctor and get his MBA, but he plans to take a leave of absence to work on the company. His parents are not happy.

LEE: My mom was just saying I don't understand over and over in Korean.
GROSS: What was it in Korean?
LEE: Actually that part was in English, but it was in a Korean accent, so it was like Konglish. 'I don't understand. I don't understand.’

But maybe this will help her come around – Agile Diagnosis won first place and took home $25,000. It's a little reassurance as her son rolls the dice on his dreams of building a company. And the Sibylus guys? They won second place. They admit first place would have been nice, but they're happy to get this stamp of approval as they set out to woo investors.