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Grad students propose new businesses in competition

HATTIESBURG –The things students learn in business school may not prepare them to present a business plan and ask investors for financial backing. That’s why the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) started the Golden Eagle Challenge last year. That’s where teams of graduate students pitch their plans for start-up businesses to a panel of mock investors.

Dr. Jon Carr, professor and director of the competition, says it was difficult to pull the competition together last year after Hurricane Katrina with the university’s Gulf Coast campuses in disarray. Four teams entered that first competition, but nine teams entered this year.

“It (the competition) is a very practical thing. These are plans that can be funded by investors for economic development,” he said. “A student last year got a job from the competition.”

Although popular around the country, The Golden Eagle Challenge is the first business plan competition in Mississippi. Carr was selected as a moot corp fellow to attend the University of Texas’ International MBA Business Plan Competition two years ago. He went to Austin for the invitation-only competition to learn how to develop a contest.

“We’re using that one as a model. We are learning how to do it and ours is growing,” he said. “I know these business plan competitions are wonderful experiences for students to learn a whole lot about entrepreneurship and about the business world.”

This year’s winning team of Karen Wilkins, Matthew Davis and Shelton Simmons presented a plan for Health Screens for Life. This business seeks to take advantage of a national trend associated with individuals seeking a more pro-active assessment of their health status.

Wilkins got the idea when she saw several ads for companies in Hattiesburg doing these screenings. All were from out of town. Her parents and those of her husband had the screenings.

“There seems to be lots of interest,” she said. “I thought it was a good business idea and dove tailed with the class I was taking.”

Wilkins was surprised to win and says she’s serious about following through with Health Screens for Life. “I did the market research and everything points favorably to doing it,” she said. “There is a high demand for it and no local companies are doing it.”

She plans to get it kicked off by mid-2007. The company will provide mobile, high-quality, simple and safe diagnostic health screenings to detect cardiovascular and other diseases at an early age. The principal target markets include corporate businesses and individuals age 40 and up in the Gulf South region.

Carr believes entrepreneurship and family business are important areas for colleges to focus on. He came to USM in 2000 to teach technology entrepreneurship, organization behavior and leadership.

“It’s a real-world exercise and a wonderful thing we can give these students,” he said of the competition.
The graduate students work all semester developing ideas and converting them into business opportunities. The last month and a half of the semester, they work on the business plan, flushing out their financial statements and getting a good grip on target markets.

Judges receive the presentations before the competition to become familiar with them. From his days in Texas, Carr garnered three sheets of tips for evaluating and grading the presentations.

One of the judges both years has been Max Draughn, founder and CEO of Cypress Pharmaceutical in Madison. “This competition fosters the ability of future entrepreneurs on how to develop a business plan and present it,” he said. “It creates confidence to present it to get financial backing. That’s something that may be lacking in schools.”

Other judges included Sarah P. Clark, senior vice president of strategic planning and investor relations for Parkway Properties, Jackson; Todd Gregory, group vice president of the Cintas Corporation, Baton Rouge, La.; David Johnson, president of The First Bank, Hattiesburg; Greg Luce, president and chairman of the board of Mississippi Export Railroad Company, Moss Point; Richard L. Williams Jr., community bank president for BancorpSouth, Gulfport; and Orlando A. Gonzalez, vice president and investment specialist with J.P. Morgan, New Orleans.

Draughn said the judges considered whether or not the plans were concise, clear and complete — were all the parts there?

“The bottom line is would I invest in it,” he said. “The top three plans in this year’s competition could be legitimate businesses. Everything about them works.”

He said the judges built consensus and felt the ideas were timely. “Some teams are going on to other contests,” he said. “We want to build the competition. I see it as greatly helpful because students do not get a lot of experience with asking for funding.”

A 1984 graduate of USM, Draughn says the winning team presented a well thought out plan and made it clear they have the personnel to carry it out.

The second-place winner was Fusionetics, a technology-based company that will design, prototype and build conversion kits to convert gasoline-powered automobiles to dual-fueled hydrogen- or gasoline-powered automobiles. This team is made up of Thomas Caroll, Christopher Spence and Van Ward.
Fusionetics’ second phase will expand to build home-based electrolyzers. Initial target markets include governmental agencies such as NASA and the U.S. Navy.

The teams came from USM’s campuses in Hattiesburg, Jackson County and Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. In addition to experience and feedback from judges, winning teams received cash awards and all students received grades for their work.

Harold Doty, dean of the College of Business, said that by implementing a real-world corporate situation, the competition fosters professional development and supports the college’s mission to provide students with an extensive conception of the various facets of business.

“The Golden Eagle Challenge is one of the key elements in the university’s efforts to enhance economic development in South Mississippi and is paramount in increasing career opportunities for our students,” he said. “I believe this year’s competition produced viable proposals for new companies.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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