But that's what was at stake for participating UNC business students when they pitched their ideas for startup companies to local business and industry leaders who served as judges March 7.
Roughly eight of the 25 groups of students that presented business ideas as part of the entrepreneurial course will be invited to continue to the second half of the course, which is taught by Kenan- Flagler Business School Dean Robert Sullivan. The groups will then refine their business strategies and, they hope, raise enough money to turn their ideas into real enterprises.
"Tonight is where the rubber meets the road," Sullivan said before the seven-minute "elevator pitches" began.
Proposals ranged from a new delivery device for inhaled medication to an ethnic travel Web site.
The unusual weight of a dean's involvement with the course is one of its biggest advantages, says graduate student participant Sjaun Woods. "His name brings a level of credibility."
Asked why the dean would teach the course himself instead of assigning it to a professor, assistant instructor Ted Zoller said, "He loves starting companies. It's in his blood."
Sullivan has run similar programs at the University of Texas and Carnegie-Mellon University.
Zoller believes that the access to the resources of the business school and the dean's connections in the business and investment community are crucial advantages of the course.
Although success is never guaranteed, the one-year-old program at UNC has already launched several successful businesses, including Brightpod, a mobile Internet service provider that was started by UNC graduate student Mohit Bhatnagr last year and was recently named one of the top four emerging companies in its field by Forrester's Research.
Last year, the Brightpod team raised $5 million in three months and was quickly purchased by Ericsson.
Admission to the course was competitive, based on the maturity and feasibility of the student's business idea. "This class is for the serious individual," Sullivan said. "Not everyone will make it."
Participants include undergraduate students, graduate students and even two faculty members. The majority of participants are master's of business administration candidates, but backgrounds ranged from computer science to neurobiology.
"Starting a company for the first time is like jumping into the water without knowing what's under there," said graduate student Lister Delgado. "Being in this class, you get as close as you can get without actually being there."
Delgado, who hopes to raise between $100,000 and $500,000 for an online "project marketplace," is optimistic but doesn't think the program's past success can foretell the current class's prospects because of the economy's recent downturn. "People were willing to bet on starters much more easily than now," he warned.
But Delgado said the stock market turmoil of recent weeks does not mitigate the lessons he is learning about entrapranuership. "I can get too high on the highs and too low on the lows," he said. "My goal is to get an idea of what it takes to launch a company."
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