Blackstone LaunchPad launches Warrior Fund grant competition
Wayne State’s Blackstone LaunchPad is giving away $35,000 to student entrepreneurs who can prove they have the mettle to make it big.
The university’s business laboratory last week launched its annual Warrior Fund, a competition that provides pre-seed funding for scalable student-owned ventures. At a Feb. 5 information session in the Student Center Building, Senior Program Administrator Aubrey Agee said the competition is designed to get students “VC-ready,” which means ready for venture capital.
“This is a chance for you to get really good at pitching your idea,” Agee told a room full of students from a range of academic disciplines that included business, law, medicine, political science and graphic arts. “To really make a go of a business takes perseverance, so we’re going to make you jump over hurdles to improve your business.”
The competition, which is restricted to Wayne State students, consists of several Blackstone LaunchPad-sponsored coaching opportunities, with only the most prepared entrepreneurs advancing to a make-or-break round during which they pitch their idea to a panel of expert judges. Blackstone LaunchPad, which is funded out of New York City by The Blackstone Group’s Blackstone Charitable Foundation, will award grants of up to $5,000 to contestants that excel at this pitch. Consequently, there will be a minimum of seven winners ($5,000 each), and possibly many more if smaller grants are awarded.
This year’s grant money has been provided by The Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (title sponsor), Lakeland Ventures Development (main sponsor), Detroit Venture Partners (professional sponsor), and Bizdom and NextEnergy (supporting sponsors). Agee stressed that even those entrepreneurs who don’t win a grant will come out ahead as a result of the advice they will receive throughout the competition.
“It’s never a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘not yet,’” Agee said, noting that several past Warrior Fund winners were entrepreneurs who did not receive an award in their first pitch attempt.
On your mark, get set, prepare!
In order to compete for a Warrior Fund grant, students must join Blackstone LaunchPad by completing an online profile and venture assessment form (http://wayne.thelaunchpad.org/). Next, the contestants will meet with Blackstone LaunchPad staff to pitch their business plan pitch. The best pitches demonstrate an understanding of the target market, production costs, and competition, Agee said. They will also employ the passion and emotional appeals necessary to persuade venture capitalists to invest.
If their initial pitch is solid, contestants will schedule one-on-one sessions with Blackstone LaunchPad staff to identify and improve weakness in their business plan, their pitch, or both. From there, select contestants will be invited to attend one of several official preparation sessions scheduled for March 1 (changed from Feb 22), May 11, Aug. 17 and Oct. 19. Those who are deemed ready will be invited back a few days later for the “big” pitch.
You + 10 Minutes = $5,000
Finalists in the Warrior Fund competition will have 10 minutes to pitch their business model to a panel of Blackstone LaunchPad sponsors, industry leaders, and WSU staff. The pitch is followed by a rigorous “grilling” from the panel intended to find “holes” in the business model, Agee said. While intense and often uncomfortable, he added, it provides invaluable grooming for real-world meetings with venture capitalists who won’t easily part with their money.
Nilesh Joshi, who won a Warrior Fund grant of nearly $5,000 in 2012 for his biochemical company, told the audience the “not yet” he got his first year of competition was as valuable as the “yes” he got months later.
“I understood the value of it much later,” Joshi told the room of contestants, adding that scientists-turned-entrepreneurs typically struggle with calculating production costs and market research. The feedback he got the first year of competition forced him to get a better handle on these aspects of his business plan, he said.
And while $5,000 is a modest contribution to a biochemical venture, Joshi conceded, the Warrior Fund grant brought him something far more valuable: “instant credibility.” Quite simply, he observed, it’s easier to get funding when you’ve gotten funding.
“Initially you are selling an idea – nothing else,” said Joshi, adding that he had no business management experience when he joined Blackstone LaunchPad. Winning a grant, he said, “is a show of confidence that there are some things you’ve done right.”
For more information on the Warrior Fund, visit http://wayne.edu/blackstonelaunchpad/warriorfund.php.