Angel's den: It's not just the money that attracts entrepreneurs to the annual TiEQuest competition
The entrepreneurs gathered on the sunny 22nd
floor of the Bay Adelaide Centre on this Saturday morning are so enthusiastic and upbeat, I wonder if there may be TV cameras lurking somewhere in the vicinity. By the time I meet them, the competitors in the TiEQuest business venture competition
have spent 45 minutes telling a panel of judges about their business plan and they're still in serious pitch mode. There's lots of money at stake, but, unlike CBC's Dragon's Den
, there's hardly any fear in the air and certainly no harshness.
"We love this competition. It's given us the opportunity to meet a lot of people, get opinions from different perspectives and develop the business side of our plan. We work in technology and we now have a better sense of what to do to attract investors," says York Hua. Six months ago, Hua and fellow University of Waterloo grad Raymond Chan started working on a smartphone-based replacement for old-fashioned ink-stamp-on-paper customer loyalty cards. They've developed an iPhone app that interacts with a cute plastic digital stamp to keep track of purchases. Today the duo are in the TiEQuest semi-finals, vying for the $50,000 cash prize that goes to the first-place winner, as well $31,000 worth of in-kind services. (The second and third place prices of $25,000 and $13,500, respectively, are no small change either for a small startup.)
Launched in 2005 by TiE Toronto
, the popularity of TiEQuest has exploded. Eleven groups participated in the first year. This year, 155 teams applied, up from about 90 in 2011. In early March, participants delivered four-minute elevator pitches of their idea to judges. Most of the entrants are in either healthcare or information and communication technology, representing two of Toronto's strongest sectors, though there are many other sectors represented. Based on whether the idea sounds like it has market potential, the winners of the elevator-pitch round were invited to present their business plans in the March 31 semi-finals. This stage sounds more daunting, but, in the meantime, the teams have received coaching and advice on how to improve their plans. The competitors I chatted with were more than eager to explain their ideas in detail.
"Our whole mission is to make it easier and more fun to study," says Nikhil Paul, CEO and founder of nfoshare
, who came up from Philadelphia to pitch his web-based service that lets university students share ideas and ask questions while they're studying. "This is the year education technology has become a hot topic and I think that's going to help."
Paul quit his job nine months ago to launch his company. The service has already been picked up by the University of Delaware and Rutgers is set to launch it next September. Even if he doesn't win, the TiEQuest experience will help him refine his business plan—and meet some startup peers. The process, which unfolds over more than three months, promotes networking among competitors and builds strong relationships between mentors and mentees. In the end, though, what the judges think still matter. "I think it went well. The judges seemed to smile at certain points," says Paul.
TiE Toronto is an offshoot of the Silicon Valley-based TiE Global
. Originally dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship among professionals and executives with roots in the Indus region, the Toronto branch's mandate has expanded beyond its South Asian origins to more broadly represent "Talent, Ideas and Enterprise." The judges are drawn from the ranks of entrepreneurs themselves, as well as angel investor and venture capitalist networks. If an idea wins them over, it should be equally appealing to potential investors.
"The judges are looking for strong IP [intellectual property] and strong innovation," says TiE Toronto president Suresh Madan. "They're also looking for something that addresses a significant market size, that's backed by a good management team." With roughly 21 PhDs, 20 engineers, 18 MBAs and five medical doctors among this year's participants, the quality of the teams has been especially high.
Over the weekend, the judges came up with five finalists. In the middle of this month, the remaining teams will pitch yet again to judges. Only one will take the top prize, but they'll all be better prepared to make their case to other potential funders.