Elder Care, iPad Toys, & Food: Inside the HBS New Venture Competition

Business plan competitions are in full bloom at colleges and universities around Boston. One of the most prominent ones, at Harvard Business School, got a facelift this year and is in the process of selecting its semifinalists.

The program is now called the HBS New Venture Competition (fka Business Plan Contest). The name change seems to reflect a dedication to helping students build real products for real customers—as well as a desire to stand out from other business plan competitions in the area (such as MIT’s $100K).

Leading the charge is Meredith McPherron, the director of the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at HBS. “It’s a completely different look and feel” from previous competitions, she told me earlier this year.

McPherron (pictured below) joined Harvard Business School last August and has built her career as a marketing executive and entrepreneur over the past 20 years. She’s an HBS alum from the early ’90s and was a Harvard undergrad for good measure.

The competition’s first weed-out phase was “Super Saturday” on the morning of April 6. About 90 teams in the “business” track gave live pitches of their startups in front of select panels of judges. The result: 10 semifinalists, who will move on to the next round of judging. (I don’t know yet who they are, and participants in the other track, “social enterprise,” are being judged this week.) The whole thing finishes up on April 30, when $150,000 in prizes will be doled out to winners and runners-up in both the business and social enterprise tracks.

I got in touch with a few of the teams in the business track ahead of time, to see what makes them tick and how their experience in the New Venture Competition is going so far:

—Shana Hoffman is a co-founder of CareSolver, a startup that’s trying to help people provide better-coordinated care to aging family members and loved ones. The company makes online tools that generate a customized care plan and task tracker, while also including health resources and collaborative features to help people communicate more efficiently with their families.

The HBS competition “has been extremely helpful for us in developing the minimum viable product” and testing it in the real world, Hoffman says. The most surprising part of the program, she adds, is “the discipline that the exercise has imposed on our thinking. While we felt that we had a very solid strategy in place, the in-depth analysis and probing questions asked by NVC has made us really bear down.”

—Phyl Georgiou is a co-founder of Tiggly, a company that designs iPad apps and related toys for toddlers. There has been a ton of research and mainstream press—mostly inconclusive so far—around the impact of screens and tablets on child development. Tiggly’s physical toys (e.g., colorful shapes) and iPad apps (e.g., drawing) are meant to preserve the motor skills and real-world interactions of traditional early childhood learning.

Georgiou writes in an e-mail, “Many parents wanted to know the answer to a key question: ‘How do I introduce my toddler to the digital world in a natural way?’” He adds, “We think it’s critical that young kids play with real toys because they are a natural bridge to the digital world.” Georgiou credits the HBS startup competition, along with customer interviews, with helping Tiggly better understand its emerging marketplace.

—Kelly Schaefer is a co-founder of Fairweather Chef, a startup looking to deliver ready-to-cook meals to homes and workplaces. This is an idea most people can relate to: you want to eat healthier and cook more, but who has the time and energy? Fairweather Chef’s plan is to deliver all the ingredients (chopped up and prepped) plus simple instructions for pan-searing or baking.

Schaefer says, “We got sick of eating out all the time, and of throwing away groceries after the sporadic bursts of ambitions that led us to go grocery shopping.” She adds that the New Venture Competition “allowed us to run pilot tests to prove the concept, and we are now getting ramped up for a full launch this summer.”

In sum, it sounds like the HBS competition includes a wide variety of startups, a good mix of founders, and a renewed drive to be at the forefront of both local and national entrepreneurship trends. McPherron said that a broader mission of the Rock Center is for students “to engage enough in entrepreneurial thinking that they can have impact wherever they go.”

Down the road, McPherron says, that might translate into a scenario where around “half of HBS alumni, 10 to 15 years out, are entrepreneurs.”

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