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A Niche Business that Doesn’t Require Millions

Jun 21, 2012

MouseHouse was just a vague idea in fall 2011. There were no customers, no website, and no product. But the student team that conceived the start-up made enough progress over the school year to win the 2012 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC). The company, which allows laboratory researchers to collaborate online for animal experiments and breeding, took home the $30,000 grand prize.

“The first presentation got some critical feedback,” recalled MouseHouse team member Imran Ahmad, AB ’06, a first-year student in Booth’s Full-Time MBA Program. “Throughout the process, the resources that Booth provided were extremely helpful.”

Those resources included a blue-ribbon panel of mentors and judges who guided each team through the 10-month process until the final presentations on May 24. Ahmad said that mentorship from biological sciences entrepreneur and NVC judge Cynthia Bayley, PhD ’90, MBA ’97, was one of the keys to building a solid business concept. Bayley worked closely with the team to ensure that the concept matched market need and that the team nailed its presentation.

“A large part of running anything well is knowing how to listen and learn,” said Bayley, who is affiliated with Chicago-based ARCH Venture Partners. “They did a great job of paying attention and executing. We’d tell them to ‘do this,’ and they would go and do it 10 times better.”

By the final presentation, the MouseHouse team had “a market that was accessible and defensible,” said Scott Meadow, NVC judge and clinical professor of entrepreneurship. “It looked like a niche business with limited competition that could be quickly developed, scaled, and sold. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end that would not require millions.”

Meadow added that the team members’ mix of medical and business backgrounds, and their ability to sell the idea in their presentation, contributed to the victory: “Each brought unique, functional strengths to the team.” In addition to Ahmad, the team members included the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine student and doctoral candidate Umar Khokhar, and first-year full-time MBA students Jeegar Shah and Akshay Sharma, who previously cofounded a wireless communication start-up in India.

Despite the intense competition, “everyone is a winner,” said Ellen Rudnick, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, as she announced the winners with Steven Kaplan, a competition sponsor and Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance.

Among the 10 teams, four finalists each received a $2,000 award and three teams tied for the fourth-place prize of $4,000 each. The third-place winner of a $10,000 prize was BloomNation, which enables consumers to shop for local florists online. Second place, a prize of $15,000 went to ArborVita Associates, a biotech company that has created a patented enzyme to modify DNA in research animals and cells. All 10 NVC finalists share more than $150,000 of in-kind services.

This year’s competition ran concurrently with two other inaugural events—the Innovation Showcase, an exhibition of 38 university-affiliated start-ups, some of which also competed in the NVC, and the UChicago Mobile App Challenge, a competition hosted by the University’s IT Services to develop apps that enhance campus life for students, faculty, and staff members.

As the school’s landmark entrepreneurship event, the competition, which is sponsored by the Polsky Center, has helped launched more than 80 companies that have raised more than $242 million in investment funding since it started 16 years ago. NVC judge and entrepreneur Brian Coe, ’99, said “it’s a great way to get brutally candid feedback while a business is on paper, not in concrete.”

Kadesha Thomas

Photo by Anne Ryan