An online tutoring service and a device designed to make custom-fit earbuds are the winners of the 2008 Olin Cup competition for entrepreneurs presented by the Olin Business School and the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Two winning companies, Virtual Nerd and Verto, emerged from an original field of 38 entrants — a WUSTL record — to earn a $70,000 investment award and a $5,000 cash prize, respectively.
Photo by Mary Butkus
Virtual Nerd co-founders Josh Salcman (left) and Leo Shmuylovich kiss the Olin Cup after receiving the $70,000 investment award from the Skandalaris Center and the Olin Business School for a promising startup.
"We had a great diversity of ideas and entrepreneurs this year," said Ken Harrington, director of the Skandalaris Center. "I am impressed by the quality of the ideas and how much they advanced their ventures during the yearlong competition."
The five finalists, which were a personalized children's book publisher, a concert recording company and a vocabulary-building game in addition to the winners, presented their business ideas to an audience in Graham Chapel following an Assembly Series question-and-answer session with entrepreneur Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.
All new business ventures begin with an idea. For M.D./Ph.D. student Leo Shmuylovich, co-founder of Virtual Nerd, the idea for an interactive, multimedia tutorial Web site to help students in math and science came while he was tutoring students one-on-one.
Shmuylovich is earning a doctorate in physics and a medical degree. He holds a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University.
Shmuylovich wanted to be able to offer more students the advantage of tutoring and make it affordable. With business partner Josh Salcman, the two have invested their own time and money to create an interactive site that tracks students' questions and progress, which can be shared with parents and teachers to improve the learning process.
Both of Virtual Nerd's young entrepreneurs admitted they were "stunned and shocked — in a good way" about winning the $70,000 investment award.
"It was a great competition, and we learned a lot about our own business," said Shmuylovich, whose business card reads "Chief Scientific Nerd."
"Winning puts some lightness in our step," he said. "It's very motivating and very exciting."
Seth Burgett, founder and CEO of Verto and a student in Olin's executive MBA program, came up with his award-winning idea for custom-fit earbuds while participating in an Ironman competition.
An avid marathoner and triathlete, Burgett found extended use of his iPod earbuds was uncomfortable and prone to falling out of his ears.
With a background in minimally-invasive surgical devices for neurology, cardiology and ophthalmology, Burgett invented a non-contact imaging technology to digitally scan an individual's ears and produce a malleable custom-fit ear-tip that attaches to iPod and mobile phone earbuds.
Verto's eartips make earbuds comfortable and allow them to stay in during exercise and extended use. Burgett plans to test-market the device this summer at triathlon and marathon races.
Olin Cup competitors are eliminated through a series of business-planning challenges by a team of 27 judges, including WUSTL faculty and community business leaders.
Harrington said the judging process plays an important role in helping entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses.
"We are very grateful to the judges and local entrepreneurs for their input," Harrington said. "All of the Olin Cup contestants receive valuable advice and feedback from them."
Sponsors of the 2008 Olin Cup included Lopata, Flegel & Co. LLP; Polsinelli Shughart PC; RubinBrown LLP; the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association; Senniger Powers LLP; Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP; and Olin Business School. Innovate St. Louis provided mentoring services.
To enter the 2009 Olin Cup competition, visit sc.wustl.edu/OlinCup/index.html.