$300K Entrepreneurs Challenge

Alex Domb
Stern's W.R. Berkley Innovation Lab is kicking off its advertised $300k Entrepreneurs challenge, despite the cash prize being less than promised.

The W. R. Berkley Innovation Labs, located within Stern, is in the process of kicking off its annual “$300k Entrepreneurs Challenge.” While two competitions have cash prizes of $100,000, one offers a smaller prize of $75,000. Winners of each competition receive an additional $50,000 in pro bono services.

The goal of the challenge is to foster new business ventures within the NYU community by awarding winning teams with substantial financial grants to help the teams kickstart their ideas.

Founded nearly 20 years ago with an initial reward of $5,000, the challenge is now the largest entrepreneurship initiative at NYU, according to Associate Director of Entrepreneurship Phoebe Punzalan. The challenge advertises itself as one of the world’s largest and most innovative accelerator programs and startup competitions on the website.

The eight-month program, which consists of various workshops, boot camps and individualized coaching sessions, involves over 750 members of the NYU community across all of its campuses. Over the course of the program, teams attempt to stay in the competition throughout increasingly competitive rounds, with the top team in each field receiving financial rewards in late spring.

The challenge consists of three primary tracks: the New Venture Competition which targets aspiring business leaders; the Technology Venture Competition, which seeks teams with business-related concepts within the information technology, life science and energy sectors; and the Social Venture Competition, which challenges community members “to create innovative approaches to tackling social problems, here and abroad,” according to the website.

While anyone currently or formerly affiliated with NYU is welcome to compete in the challenge, there are a number of criteria that entrants must meet to be eligible for the competition — the applicant’s ventures cannot have made more than $250,000 in revenue or in funding from external institutions and investors, for example.

Nationally renowned businesses and startups have gotten boosted through the help of the challenge, according to Punzalan. Punzalan said that in 2009, Pinterest competed under the name “Tote” and received second place in the New Venture Competition and that “Keen Home,” a startup allowing individuals to control their home’s ventilation with their smartphones, went on to become one of the most highly valued startups to ever be pitched on the popular show “Shark Tank.” Punzalan also said that other past entrants have gone on to be acquired by Amazon, Twitter and Airbnb.

Berkley Innovation Labs’s Director of Innovation Cynthia Franklin said the challenge not only encourages students to dream big, but it also provides students with the tools, training, funding and networks to make their dreams into plans.

“We don’t simply share a list of steps needed to start a single business,” Franklin said. “We help students develop entrepreneurial skills that will last a lifetime by first teaching them how to generate ideas that will disrupt stagnant industries and then showing them how to see those ideas through to launch.”

Christopher Mitchell, last year’s winner and co-founder and CEO of Geopipe, said the challenge had a positive impact on his team’s venture — and they have not even spent the financial reward yet.

“We had a positive experience with the challenge, both in terms of what we learned about our customer discovery process and startup plan, and in the pitch-completion components,” Mitchell said. “Winning the challenge helped push us forward with Geopipe’s development and extended our runway to build a successful beta before raising our seed round.”

While the challenge itself is focused on business and entrepreneurship, Punzalan said she believes that the competition is additionally reflective of NYU’s global values.

“I see NYU as a global university that, more than any other school in the country, brings together students and lifelong learners from around the globe,” Punzalan said. “The challenge similarly believes that the most innovative ventures are a product of diverse and collaborative founding teams.”

Despite the generous prizes that the challenge gives out, Punzalan said that she hopes to give away as much as $1 million in future years — particularly to provide ongoing assistance to teams after the competition cycle ends.

She also said she hopes to expand the role of the competition in areas of social impact.

“There are so many big, gnarly issues facing our world, and there’s a huge role for social entrepreneurs to play in solving them,” Punzalan said.

The deadline to enter the $300K Entrepreneurship Challenge is Thursday, Oct. 5 at noon.

Correction: Oct. 2, 2017

A previous version of this article stated that the $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge only awarded $275,000 in cash. It has been updated to reflect that the total of cash prizes and pro bono services awarded is greater than $300,000.

Email Alex Domb at [email protected]

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