Nine teams of UC San Diego students, researchers and entrepreneurs collectively won $300,000 at the Entrepreneur Challenge startup competition on Tuesday, May 30 at Qualcomm, Inc.’s Sorrento Valley headquarters. The challenge was separated into three categories: “High Tech,” “Life Tech,” and “Clean Tech.”
The first-place team in each category won $60,000 in cash and services to advance their company’s business goals, with second place winners taking home $30,000 and third place taking home $10,000. The winner in the High Tech category was Additive Rocket Corporation (ARC), a company that custom 3D-prints rocket engines for spaceflight and satellite launches. The Life Tech winner was Veocor, creator of a tool to identify blood clots in the left ventricle of the heart and thus reduce the risk of stroke. In the Clean Tech category, South 8 Technologies won for its high-performance lithium batteries and capacitors. Most of the competing teams were composed of UC San Diego undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni.
“[Sixty thousand dollars] is very significant, and what’s more important than the money itself are the people that that money is attached to, whether it’s in-kind services from law firms [or] mentorship,” said Greg Horowitt, partner at Kai Capital Partners and Director of Innovation Design at UCSD, referring to the services donated by event sponsors and included as part of the prize money calculations. “You kind of get a leg up, ‘cause you get access to people of talent and resources that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. So that’s critical for startups.”
Now in its tenth year, the Entrepreneur Challenge began at UC San Diego, but has since developed into an independent entity supported by its own 501(c)(3) foundation. The Entrepreneur Challenge “$300,000 Business Plan Competition” spanned several months, culminating in last Tuesday’s finals, during which the top six teams pitched their companies to potential investors in Irwin M. Jacobs Hall at Qualcomm. Other events hosted were a “$10,000 Elevator Pitch Competition” and a series of workshops with experienced entrepreneurs.
Past winners have grown into companies that are now collectively worth over $1.2 billion. The keynote speaker at Tuesday’s event, Brad Chisum, was the competition’s first winner. His company, Lumedyne Technologies, was acquired by Google for $85 million in 2015 and he now works as an angel investor and startup advisor.
This year’s winners have high hopes for their companies as well. Lorenzo Rossini is a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering as well as the founder and CTO of Veocor Diagnostics. Going forward, he hopes to commercialize his product and potentially partner with conglomerates such as General Electric, Philips, and Siemens. However, his ideas for the $60,000 check his company received Tuesday are more immediate.
“Right now our plans are to formalize the incorporation of the company and start improving some aspects of the product,” Rossini said. “It works in our research setting, so we want to start [giving it to cardiologists] to try from their offices as well.”
Veocor’s product is a clinical diagnostic software that measures blood stagnation inside the heart based on commonly performed echocardiograms. It allows cardiologists to identify patients at risk of developing a clot in the left ventricle, which could potentially lead to a cardiac embolism or a stroke.
Rossini’s research has focused on this since his matriculation to UCSD. However, resources such as the Entrepreneur Challenge were invaluable in his decision to commercialize the product.
“We didn’t really think about the business opportunity that well until we started this connection with the Rady School and the Office of Innovation [and Commercialization],” he said. “It’s been a nice push towards the right direction to form a company that builds a product [we’ve] been working on from the research side.”
In addition to the Entrepreneur Challenge, Veocor has been affiliated with the StartR accelerator at the Rady School of Management and the Institute for the Global Entrepreneur accelerator within the Jacobs School of Engineering. The latter has also allowed Rossini to take business courses through the Rady School.
“From my perspective, all the help and support that I got from UCSD was really useful,” he said, speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs. “Go out and talk to people who you think probably know more than you know about business or how to make your research project a commercial opportunity.”
Horowitt agreed. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and find yourself a really good mentor. And it may be more than one mentor–you may have a business mentor; you may have more of a life mentor,” he said. “But we find that there is a very strong correlation between entrepreneurs being able to move their ideas forward and a mentor behind [them], there to…bounce ideas off and help guide you or make connections for you.”
A UCSD alumnus and entrepreneur himself, Horowitt has provided guidance to several teams over the years, including this year’s High Tech winner, Additive Rocket Corporation. He was named the competition’s Volunteer of the Year for his commitment to guiding teams and growing the Entrepreneur Challenge. Tuesday’s finals were judged by approximately 15 volunteers, primarily venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs from San Diego.
“Everyone who works [for the challenge] is a volunteer—I don’t think anyone is getting paid. I love to work with startups and advise startups,” said Horowitt. “Very often, businesses outside the campus may not realize that a lot of these wonderful ideas we’re working on have moved far enough along to where they actually have business or commercial potential, and so seeing what these entrepreneurs have done…definitely benefits the community.”
Next year’s competition will kick off in October and a complete list of last Tuesday’s winners can be found on the Entrepreneur Challenge’s website.
Rohan Grover is a contributing writer for The Triton.