University of Wisconsin-Madison senior and engineering major Justin Vannieuwenhoven wanted to help his grandfather solve a problem: the fact that he struggled to catch fish in turbulent water, theorizing that the bait looked unnatural to the fish because it kept changing height rapidly.
So Justin developed a fishing rod holder that self-adjusts to the height of bait.
Justin’s idea not only fixed his grandfather’s problem, but his company, 3in1 Holders, beat out 31 other teams at the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition on May 3 to claim the top prize of $10,000.
The Burrill Business Plan competition is an example of cross-campus collaboration among majors as diverse as engineering, art history, physics, and marketing. The Wisconsin School of Business event, in its 15th year, brought together 65 students to compete for more than $27,000 in cash prizes, including a $5,000 prize from the AARP Foundation for a start-up business plan that meets the needs of an aging population.
Students can attend seminars throughout the year on topics such as marketing research, intellectual property management, and retailing strategies to help the competitors create their business plans. On March 1, the groups submitted idea sketches, which were then critiqued by entrepreneurs and other professionals. In order to advance in the competition, the teams submitted a full plan on April 1.
“The goal of the competition is to prepare students with the capabilities, confidence, and relationships they will need to move ahead with their ideas,” said John Surdyk, competition director. “Our students have shared with us that the competition this year has helped them to recognize new opportunities and develop sound business models that will help them and their ventures succeed.”
Two teams tied for second place and each won $5,500: Fetch Rewards (a grocery store app) and Re LLC (high-performance prosthetics). Chefs for Seniors won fourth place and $1,000, and Cbay LLC (an online service for selling household items, particularly for people who are moving or downsizing) took home the AARP Foundation Prize of $5,000. Fetch Rewards also won a year of free rent at the University Research Park.
The experience was rewarding even for those who didn’t make it to the final round. Paul Gerhartz, a sophomore and dual accounting/philosophy major, competed with his idea called Who Dat?, which is a crowd-sourced website that identifies popular local bands based on voting on YouTube videos.
Gerhartz came up with his idea while struggling to book gigs with his band in high school. He figured there had to be other bands struggling to promote themselves as well, plus music fans are always looking for emerging musicians and bands. After selling t-shirts at the Wisconsin State Capitol during the 2011 protests, Gerhartz was hooked on entrepreneurship.
“Ultimately, entrepreneurs simply create businesses because we see problems and want to fix them to make the world better and everyone happier,” Gerhartz said. “I know I'm not a good-enough musician, but if I can help launch a band into mainstream popularity, that is how I will contribute to changing the world.”
Although Justin is basking in the glory of his win and planning to launch the business commercially, he wasn’t always as confident. As an underclassman, he thought he wouldn’t be able to compete with older students, a feeling he has left in the past.
“There’s a misconception that the ideas and businesses are really complex or complicated, and that’s not necessarily true,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said for coming up with a simple solution to a problem, and I think I’ve proven that.”