by Christopher Lindquist

College Technology Competition Gets Attention, Encourages Innovation

Jan 15, 20043 mins

Something was bothering John Doggett. The director of entrepreneurship programs at The University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business looked around campus and realized that he was surrounded by ideas. With 163 professors and researchers, plus 6,500 students, the labs and lecture rooms were filled with promising research and strong hunches. Unfortunately, most of those ideas?no matter how valuable?would never leave the university.

The school?like many others?had an Office of Technology Commercialization, but the organization was mostly interested in licensing technology, not developing commercial potential. So with the drive of a good entrepreneur, Doggett set out to find a solution. After consulting with like-minded people at the university’s School of Engineering, Doggett and Associate Vice President of Research Steve Nichols formed what would become Idea to Project, a competition designed to expose commercially viable ideas to the outside world while also teaching students valuable lessons about building a company.

Doggett and Nichols wanted to be sure, however, that this wasn’t going to be just another business plan competition. So they laid down some strict rules. The technology had to be developed on campus. It had to be proven to work. It had to solve a problem for a market of reasonable size. Intellectual property ownership had to be worked out beforehand. And the teams needed to include a business student and a law student because, Doggett says, in the real world, engineers can’t work in a vacuum.

The first competition in 2001 included seven teams. The 2002 event drew 33. And 2003 saw that number hit 82. Now the contest has gone international, spreading to the Georgia Institute of Technology, Imperial College London, Penn State University, Purdue University and Stanford University.

This past November, the six schools’ teams competed in the first international competition for a modest prize of $10,000. But the award is just a small part of the draw. Instead, the students are seeking a learning experience?as well as exposure to potential funding sources (the University of Texas campus competition attracts local venture capital firms). Simply making the initial presentations can be a serious life lesson.

“It’s a little painful the first time you get up there,” says University of Texas student Scott Evans, whose team wants to commercialize a new method to mold aluminum parts. Evans’s group went to the international contest, which was won by an asthma treatment and monitoring device from the Imperial College London team.

Teams are guided and critiqued by an advisory committee made up of academics and business leaders. “You have people who will help you move forward,” Evans says. “[They’ll help you] analyze the market and suggest, Have you asked this question?”

Interest in the competition is growing. Doggett says that next year’s contest could include 20 teams, including schools from China, India, Japan and Mexico. And with wider competition, so grows the likelihood that significant commercial products will emerge?a prospect that excites the competition’s creators. “We’re focused on bringing Rembrandts out of the the attic,” Doggett says.