Monday, May 12, 2014 Wisconsin School of Business News
Invention for 3D Printers Wins Burrill Competition by Lavilla Capener

Cedric Kovacs-Johnson really loves 3D printers.

“It was amazing to get my hands on and so easily grasp a technology that had gained a lot of publicity,” he said. “When I started to use it, I instantly recognized its potential and wanted to work in the field as it started taking off.”

Yet, Kovacs-Johnson and fellow engineering student Charles “Chase” Haider discovered 3D printers had one flaw: color. 3D printing is a process of using a digital model to create a three-dimensional object, and the first printers were limited to pre-dyed plastic filament.

“We saw the future for what could be,” Kovacs-Johnson said. “Neither of us had any idea how we could accomplish this goal, but recognized it as an interesting problem.”

After multiple designs, the group landed on a process that works similar to an ink-jet printer, adding dye directly to clear plastic in a continuous cycle. After bringing on teammates Taylor Fahey and Mike Kobida and naming the company Spectrom, the group has won a number of student competitions including the Wisconsin School of Business’ G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition on May 2.Spectrom group photo

The organizers of the Burrill competition invited students from across the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop a business idea and pitch it to a panel of business professionals, entrepreneurs, and investors. In its 16th year, the competition offers a top prize of $10,000 and free office space in University Research Park.

This year, the judges made a rare choice: when divvying up the Burrill prize money, they awarded Spectrom an additional $2,000. Spectrom also won the $10,000 Schoofs Prize for Creativity and the $2,500 Tong Prototype Prize at Innovation Days earlier this year. With the Burrill prize, Spectrom’s prize money totals nearly $25,000.

“The team that won this year, Spectrom, is a really interesting venture because it embodies what Steve Burrill hoped we might highlight for students with this event when he created it in 1998,” said John Surdyk, director of the Burrill competition. “In Spectrom's plan and presentation, you could see the careful attention to the technology, but also the attention to the business model that would help to make it a commercial success.”

Surdyk said he was impressed by the overall preparedness and sophistication of this year’s teams.

“More than half of our teams took their ideas much further by incorporating, hiring people, or making sales,” he said. “One student was closing a deal for $50,000 of investment in the hallway on the competition day!”

Although this year’s contest culminated with a full day of presentations, the work began several months prior. Students were required to submit a mini-plan when they registered for the competition at the end of February and a full business plan in early April. Throughout the school year, students had access to free seminars and panels on topics relevant to start-ups, including business planning and intellectual property.

For students, the months-long process forced them to think critically about their business. Sensori group photo

The team behind Sensori—a sensor that attaches to the knob of a baseball bat and helps players improve their swing—said the Burrill process forced them to address tough questions about their product. 

“We were able to hammer home details while working throughout the competition,” said Peter Oppermann, Sensori team member and second-year MBA student. “You know what you’re striving for, and it makes it much more purposeful.” 

The competition welcomed students from majors as diverse as geography, astrophysics, and zoology to compete for $32,000 in prize money. In addition the traditional cash prizes, the AARP Foundation and the Wisconsin Center for Educational Products and Services offered additional prizes for teams that met criteria for innovation and social impact. For a full listing of the winners, visit the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition web page.