Two Materials Ph.D. Students Get a Crash Course in Business

Published on Tuesday June 1, 2004

Nevin Naguib and Emily Ho returned from the University of San Francisco's sixth annual International Business Plan Competition empty-handed, but with increased knowledge about raising funds from venture capitalists, technology transfer from an academic project to the business world, and being entrepreneurs.

The two Ph.D. students from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel University formed one of 25 semi-finalist teams chosen to compete in the cutthroat competition. One of only three teams with women members, they were also one of the only teams that did not include a teammate with an M.B.A. or in an M.B.A. program. When asked whether they felt stranger being two of the only engineers or two of the only women at the competition, both agreed that being engineers in a sea of business people felt more odd to them. "As women, we're used to being some of the only women in engineering, but as engineers, we are not used to being surrounded by business people," said Naguib.

The competition began with an elevator pitch competition-each team had 90 seconds to convince approximately 40 judges, all venture capitalists, to invest in their company. Just a few weeks before, Naguib and Ho had never even heard of an elevator pitch. "Ninety seconds is about the time it takes to ride an elevator," explained Ho, "and if you're in the elevator with someone who could potentially fund your company, you have to be prepared to give them all of the crucial and attractive points about your company in that time."

Naguib gave the pitch for the team's company, HY-NANO, and said that it was an incredibly "stress-inducing experience." After the 90 seconds were up, the VCs gave each team feedback. "But the feedback was not consistent," said Naguib. "Some liked it, some didn't. And their feedback was completely different from a 'feedback session' that we went to a day earlier, which was filled with business professors from the University of San Francisco." Naguib attributes this diversity of opinions to the inherent difference between engineering and business. "In engineering, we are looking to prove something with hard facts. In business, there is no 'right or wrong' answer to follow, no strict guidelines. It really depends on the situation, the economy, the 'hot seller' of the moment."

Following the elevator pitch, the 25 teams were split into 5 separate groups to compete in front of 10 to 12 judges. The top two winners of these groups battled against one another to determine the final first and second place winners.

One consistent remark Naguib and Ho received was that a business background would have been useful. "One of the first questions we were asked was, 'where did you get your M.B.A.?'" Ho remarked. "VCs aren't looking for anything technical-just a low risk, high return investment-so they're more interested in whether or not you are at their level from a business perspective."

Both felt their experience was more useful than a condensed M.B.A. course. "Most M.B.A.s barely get to meet and present their business plans to one venture capitalist in their lives, let alone 50," said Naguib. If they were to do it all over again, both said they would try to find a few M.B.A. students to be part of their team and would do more fundraising first-coming to the competition with some money already in hand makes the company a more secure investment and potentially more attractive to VCs. They would also try to convince their advisor to come, since many brought either their deans or their advisors. "This was more than a start up companies or concept competition. People came with registered companies, hoping to get the support of a venture capitalist," explained Ho. "We came to learn something and to give our idea a try. We certainly had a bit of a shock!"

When asked what advice they would give to other engineers planning to try out for the competition, they unanimously said to go with an open mind and think of it as a learning experience more than a competition, include someone with an M.B.A. on your management team, and don't expect to win.