Guide Them Early: Milken-Penn Competition Seeks Both ‘Idea’ and ‘Venture’ Applicants

Guide Them Early: Milken-Penn Competition Seeks Both ‘Idea’ and ‘Venture’ Applicants

The winners of the 2014 Milken-Penn Competition jump for joy. / Milken-Penn GSE

First launched in 2010, the competition, organized by the University of Pennsylvania, invited fledgling education entrepreneurs to submit business plans. Each year, however, the applications get stronger--and applicants enter with more developed businesses.

“The applicants’ ventures have become more mature than they were a few years ago,” said Brad Beshara, Director of Business Development at the Office of Academic Innovation at Penn GSE. “We wanted to capture ventures that were already in place, but also keep to our roots and find people who have great ideas.”

Now in its sixth year, the competition is both expanding and returning to its original vision by adding a second, idea-based track. Prospective applicants can choose one of two paths, applying either as an “Idea” or a “Venture,” which are distinguished as having “any of the following: customers, revenue, outside investment, grants, or intellectual property.” (Applications are due February 24.)

Since the start of the competition, applicants have been evaluated by a group of 200 online judges, spanning the gamut from investors to teachers to researchers. Finalists then pitch their entries at the competition, held on Penn’s campus in May, and are awarded prizes totaling $140,000.

Applicants to the new idea track will undergo a similar process, although they will be evaluated differently. “For ideas, it’s based on whether the judges believe the idea is scalable,” said Bobbi Kurshan, Executive Director of Academic Innovation and Senior Fellow at Penn GSE. “For ventures, it’s based much more on the business plan they’ve suggested, and whether it will work.”

The additional track will enable the Milken-Penn Competition to take on a second role, as a makeshift incubator. Kurshan explained: “In past years, if you were just an idea, in all likelihood, you wouldn’t make it. We wanted to take ideas and give them support, both financial and educational, and nurture them so they’d be ready for the next step.”

To that end, finalists for the idea track will also be provided with online training before the final competition on May 12-13. The sessions, including how-to guides on mission statements, business plans, and how to deliver a pitch, are designed to help companies with the awkward adolescence between idea and fully-fledged venture.

While the number of winners will be decided by the final judges, Beshara anticipates 4-5 venture winners, and “around the same (maybe a little less) in the idea path.” (Last year, six companies won.) In addition to funding, the winners may be selected for the Education Design Studio (EDSi), Penn GSE’s incubator.

There are other education business plan competitions, including at the Yale School of Management. Edtech companies are also raking in the prizes at “social impact investing” competitions organized by business schools. For instance, all three winners of the MBA Impact Investing Network & Training competition work in education: Goalbook, LearnSprout and Jail Education Solutions.

But Kurshan calls attention to the Milken-Penn event as the largest education business plan competition run out of an education graduate school, rather than a business school. She also underlines the lack of support for those early stage ideas, who may not have the space or resources to develop much of a business plan. “There’s quite a number of good competitions, but few are doing things to help with ideas--go out and figure out what to do on your own,” she said.

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