Winning Pitch Helps Entrepreneur "Get Our Story Out"
George Weinmann felt flutters in his stomach on March 21 as he stepped into an elevator with a venture capitalist for a make-it-or-break-it ride up to the top floor of the Wachovia Center in downtown Winston-Salem, N.C.
The first-year University of Michigan Business School MBA student had only two minutes during the dizzying ascension to deliver a winning pitch for his company, ADI Thermal Power, and to qualify as one of six finalists in the fourth annual Babcock Elevator Competition, sponsored by Wake Forest University. Using a carefully focused approach---one that combined an honest appraisal and an enthusiastic, easily understood description of his start-up firm, which has developed a new low-cost engine-generator for the distributed-power market---Weinmann out-pitched student teams from 17 leading universities, including Michigan.
This winning strategy, delivered on two 28-floor elevator rides, carried him into the finals where he made a 30-minute presentation of his business proposal before a panel of judges and went on to capture first place in the competition. The top prize was an engraved clock and access to venture capitalists who judged the pitch, with an invitation to pursue real funding discussions in the future.
The Babcock Elevator Competition is staged by the Angell Center for Entrepreneurship at Wake Forest's Babcock Graduate School of Management. The opportunity to represent Michigan and to compete at a national level was a great honor, says Weinmann, who is a member of the Entrepreneur and Venture Capital Club at Michigan’s Business School. His participation in the business-plan competition also provided important feedback and a chance to polish his fund-raising presentation in front of professionals.
“The competition was obviously a huge confidence and morale boost for me and the company,” Weinmann said. “I was aware I could make a good pitch, but at this event, I learned the key was my ability to speak forthrightly about the firm, our strengths and weaknesses and our plans. Conveying this sense of honest appraisal, along with an enthusiastic description of the opportunity, made a big impression on the judges.”
Earlier, in January, Weinmann won the $1,600 first prize in Michigan’s Quick Pitch, a five-minute business-plan competition sponsored by the U-M Business School’s Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies.
Weinmann believes Michigan’s “well-rounded strengths on the academic front” play very well to the needs of entrepreneurial business, where selling the management team is as important as selling the product or service. “To be a successful entrepreneur, one needs to be capable and sophisticated on many levels,” he said. “This is only possible to achieve through significant experience and great training across the board---qualities inherent in Michigan MBAs.”
The coaching and encouragement Weinmann received from Paul Kirsch of the Zell-Lurie Institute, Kurt Riegger of Northcoast Venture Capital in Ann Arbor and his classmate and fellow competitor Scott Baron also helped to prepare him for the tough questioning by VCs he faced during the two-day competition. “This support network was critical to my success,” Weinmann said.
To date, ADI Thermal Power has built and demonstrated an alpha prototype of its high-efficiency, low-cost engine-generator, which is based on a proprietary stirling-engine design. Weinmann---a former aerospace engineer and business-development specialist for Boeing---and his partners have identified several initial customer sites for their system, including supermarkets and light-industrial facilities in the Pacific Northwest near their Seattle-area headquarters. Currently, they are seeking $3 million in a series A venture financing round to proceed to a beta unit test phase with these customers.
Weinmann’s win at Wake Forest has generated a considerable amount of publicity. This PR windfall includes an interview on National Public Radio’s Marketplace, a write-up in Business Direct Weekly, an invitation to appear at the Zell-Lurie Institute’s annual board meeting and an introduction to Institute benefactor Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Office Group, a national real estate firm.
“ADI Thermal Power is still a long way from being a commercial operation,” Weinmann said. “But the business plan-competition experience has been an outstanding way to hone my presentation style, round out the details of my business plan and expose me and the company to a variety of new funding and customer opportunities. It has helped us get our story out there.”
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