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Business Pitches Win Big

Northwestern entrepreneurs win almost $1 million in Rice Business Plan Competition

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April 16, 2012 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University teams representing faculty and students from four schools swept the awards in the Rice Business Plan Competition this weekend -- with NuMat Technologies winning the grand prize and three major awards worth a total of more than $874,000.

The competition is the world’s richest and largest graduate-level business plan competition. Forty-two teams from around the world competed in front of 250 judges for more than $1.5 million in prizes. The emerging companies from graduate schools around the world had to pitch their best business ideas to venture capitalist and industry experts seeking startups in which to invest.

NuMat Technologies impressed the judges with its plan to design and create high-performance materials to store clean fuels and produce them on a large scale for industry. The team beat out teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins and Purdue universities and the University of Idaho for the grand prize in the final round of the three-day event.

NuMat’s major Rice awards are the $450,000 GOOSE Society Investment Prize, the $125,000 OWL Investment Prize, the $100,000 Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Prize for Clean Tech Innovation and the $100,000 Opportunity Houston - Best Technology Investment Prize.

Another Northwestern team, Mimas Nanomaterials, which uses plastic waste to manufacture a suite of high-value nanoparticles for raw materials of the green economy, won a $100,000 convertible note from Waste Management.

“Entrepreneurship emerges as a result of connections between disciplines,” said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer. “By bringing together engineering, chemistry, business and law, NuMat helps move Northwestern research from the lab out into the market.”

The NuMat entrepreneurs are on a roll. Last month they won the student division and a $100,000 prize in the Clean Energy Challenge, a Midwest competition sponsored by Chicago’s Clean Energy Trust.

NuMat Technologies is comprised of three graduate students and a research professor from four Northwestern schools: Ben Hernandez (chief executive officer), Tabrez Ebrahim (chief operating officer), Chris Wilmer (chief technology officer) and Omar Farha (chief scientific officer).

“We’re excited about taking Northwestern cutting-edge research out of the lab and into the marketplace -- where it belongs,” said Wilmer on behalf of the team. “We are also grateful to Northwestern for being so supportive of us and of student entrepreneurs in general.”

Hernandez and Ebrahim are pursuing a JD-MBA, a joint degree from the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Law; Wilmer is a chemical and biological engineering doctoral student at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Farha is a research associate professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. (Hernandez also received his undergraduate degree from McCormick.)

NuMat’s proprietary computational screening tool can rapidly identify and test metal-organic frameworks, a new class of nanostructures for clean fuel storage. The process was developed in the labs of Randall Q. Snurr, professor of chemical and biological engineering in McCormick, and Joseph T. Hupp, professor of chemistry in Weinberg.

Mimas Nanomaterials came out of Northwestern’s NUvention: Energy course, and the work is based on technology from Argonne National Laboratory.

(The highly popular NUvention program -- three entrepreneurship courses on energy innovation, Web-based businesses and medical innovation -- has spawned a number of start-up companies. Industry leaders help teach the courses in which teams start with a product idea with the goal of ending up with a business.)

Both teams work out of the Northwestern University Incubator, a free office space in downtown Evanston that encourages entrepreneurship among faculty, students and alumni.

The Rice Business Plan Competition includes more investor judges than any other similar competition in the world, said Lea Aden Lueck, director of the Rice Business Plan Competition. “It is an important step in validating your technology, your business plan and your management team.”

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