Grunke Column: Entrepreneurship Alive and Well In Montana’s Higher Education

One of the most enjoyable activities I get to be a part of each year is the John Ruffato Business Start-Up Challenge hosted by the University of Montana and the School of Business Administration and presented in collaboration with the Missoula Economic Partnership.

For the past 26 years, undergraduate and graduate students have presented their ideas and received real world experience in developing a business, and since the competition began, 62 plans have been used to start businesses. On May 14, 16 student teams from across Montana competed for over $50,000 in prize money.

This year, the name was changed to the “Start-up Challenge” to properly reflect the changing role of the competition. At the inception, it was more of an academic exercise, but now it’s about real-world start-ups and supporting those start-ups. The goal is to support the start-up of these entrepreneurs, not just the structure and components of the plan, but real ideas turning into real ventures.

One of the primary purposes of traditional business plan competitions is to give inexperienced entrepreneurs (notably younger, student entrepreneurs) an opportunity to validate their business ideas before they have fully launched, as well as gain some visibility and traction from potential investors while winning some cash that might be used as seed capital to further develop their venture idea. Students and other first-time entrepreneurs often have no network of experienced advisors or other experts to validate their plans and ideas, nor any connections to customers or investors that might serve to capitalize the business.

The new goal of entering an entrepreneur competition is not to receive validation, or even to “win.” The benefits for participants are gaining access to a more in-depth programs, to investors, to markets, or to customers. The real prize is to be given the opportunity to develop the idea. For entrepreneurs, there are no surprises. Accelerators, Start-up Weekends, Demo Days, and Pitch Events are a fact of modern start-up life. While entering or winning one of these competitions may not be a required step toward success for many entrepreneurs, particularly those without the experience and support networks, winning an entrepreneur competition may be the most tangible route to starting up. However, simply gaining entrance to one of these programs is as powerful as getting their first customer or their first investor.

While seemingly every municipality undertakes “entrepreneurship initiatives” they often seem to lack having a real system in place and are just trying to capitalize on buzz. A city can launch as many incubators as they want, but without a network of support, access to funding or mentors, and a community united behind the project, those spaces fail to really spur any true change in the area. In Missoula, and Montana, the infrastructure is now in place to fully support entrepreneurship development, and the Start-up Challenge is a vital piece of this landscape.

This year’s winners and entrants are poised to take their place in driving Missoula and Montana’s economy and start-up culture forward.

James Grunke is the president/CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership.

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