Grunke column: UM business plan contest plants the seeds of entrepreneurship

What do an heirloom tomato production facility, a mobile social organizing app and a food delivery business have in common? They were all prize-winning participants in the recent John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition at The University of Montana. Held this year on May 16, the competition drew 23 entries from a diverse array of entrepreneurial students at universities and colleges across Montana. From those entries, 13 were selected to participate in the live, daylong event in UM’s Gallagher Business Building.

I was fortunate to join nearly two dozen area businesspeople as a judge in this year’s competition. As I listened to the students pitch their ideas, I was struck not only by the creativity and ambition of the students who spent months honing their plans, but also by the spirit of the event itself.

Although the daylong competition took place on the UM campus, this wasn’t simply an academic exercise for those involved. It was, rather, focused on helping young innovators move from idea to action. By shining an objective light on the opportunities and weaknesses in their plans, and providing the winners with a first injection of cash, the competition does much to incubate tomorrow’s homegrown businesses — and, in the process, to keep some of our brightest students in the state.

In many parts of the country, residents of university towns refer to the local campus as an “ivory tower” and bemoan the “town/gown” divide. Here in Missoula, we are fortunate not only to have an esteemed research institution in our midst, but also to benefit from smartly built, well-traveled bridges between the academic and local business communities.

UM’s Office of Technology Transfer is one such bridge. The office serves as a liaison between UM’s research community and the private sector regarding intellectual property, commercialization and business development opportunities. Since 2009, with the office’s help nine UM employees have received approval from the Montana Board of Regents to pursue commercialization of their research through the formation of a new company.

You’ve probably heard about one such UM spinout, Rivertop Renewables. The company, which now employs more than 20 workers, secured one of 10 venture capital deals in Montana during the past decade — money that helped it move toward commercialization of glucaric acid in bio-based detergent builders and corrosion inhibitors patented by UM.

The business plan competition provides another critical connection. Many observers are surprised to learn that this program, now in its 24th year, is one of America’s oldest student business plan competitions. Over the years, participants have gone on to create successful businesses including Big Sky Brewing Company, Five On Black, American Expedition Vehicles, Orbital Software, Wood Fusion Studio, Genre & Mode, Mazdog Archery, Rocky Mountain Truss Company and dozens more.

The competition developed because leaders recognized that a culture of entrepreneurship doesn’t simply happen; it must be constantly nurtured. Turning well-laid business plans into real operations is critical to the economic future of our community and our state. By supporting this annual competition, we provide an important venue for entrepreneurial initiative.

Will Montana soon be home to a new hydroponic tomato producer? I certainly hope so. After all, it’s always better — in business and in gardening — when you grow your own.

James Grunke is CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the June 23, 2013 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

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