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Darden's new Progressive Incubator nurtures students' award-winning ideas

By Charlotte Crystal

Kareen Looi is convinced her business idea is a good one. A panel of judges agreed when they awarded Looi and her partner Kiernan Conn first place in Darden's Business Plan Competition for their presentation of Setagon, a company they are creating to develop and market a specialized medical device for the treatment of serious cardiovascular disease. The two recent graduates of the Darden School won $10,000 and a spot in Darden's new Progressive Incubator.

Start-up companies

In addition to Looi's and Conn's victory in Darden's Business Plan Competition 2000, which was sponsored by the Batten Institute and the Darden Entrepreneurs Club, other finalists -- all of whom received invitations to join the Progressive Incubator -- included:

  • Capacitive Networks: a company that designs and manufactures digital home network portals -- Krishnan Srinivasan, Andy Bubala, and Mike McMahon;

  • Return Solutions: a dot.com company based on a software program that provides a liquidation service for returned goods -- David Ellis, Steve Dennen, Karl Hartmann, Josh Larson, Bill Stevens;

  • e4dex: service linking small business professionals via mobile phone -- Chris Duffus, Gavin Daniels, Jose Zertuche.

The competition judges were: Laura Lukaczyk, New Enterprise Associates; E. Rogers Novak, Novak Biddle Venture Partners; Jeffrey Nuechterlein, National Gypsum Pension Fund; and Kyp Sirinakis, Women Angels Network.

One of several innovative programs run by Darden's Batten Institute, the Progressive Incubator provides students with the resources needed to build strong foundations for their early-stage businesses -- including six months of free office space, Internet access, business advice, access to venture capital funding, and a summer stipend. Fifteen Darden students are currently participating in the incubator program. Unlike other incubator projects, the Batten Institute's Progressive Incubator does not take an equity stake in the young companies in payment for its services.

The Batten Institute serves Darden by supporting research and other programs that explore the ways in which entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial organizations create, lead and transform global enterprises. The Institute was launched last winter with a $60 million gift, the largest ever contributed to a business school, from Frank Batten Sr., the retired chairman of Landmark Communications Inc., an international media company with broad holdings in electronic and print media, including The Weather Channel in Atlanta and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.

For Looi, the question now is whether she can persuade others -- biomedical engineers, cardiologists, insurers, venture capitalists, financial analysts -- of the viability of her vision. She wants to develop and sell an angioplasty stent, a device used in cardiac surgery to clear blocked arteries that can also deliver drugs. She's starting from scratch, without a medical background, entrepreneurial experience, or financial backers. But her passion for her idea and the boost from the Progressive Incubator should help her reach her goal.

Looi was trained as a lawyer in her native Singapore, a background she believes helped her keep her cool while fielding questions during her business plan presentation. It also didn't hurt that she and her partner had been working on the idea for months -- starting with a group of students in a venture capital class last fall -- and had thought through answers to many of the questions the judges asked.

The Darden students conducted research in the library, on foot and over the phone. They studied the history and dynamics of their market. They developed an organizational model for a start-up company. They talked to cardiologists and to purchasing managers in cardiology about similar products, as well as products the professionals wished they had but couldn't find. They explored industry trends with health care and biotechnology consultants and asked about products that failed. They spoke with financial analysts and venture capitalists to learn how financial markets view investments in biotechnology companies. They explored patenting issues.

In short, they demonstrated to the judges that their idea was based on a huge amount of research. And with Looi turning down lucrative job offers to direct the fledgling company after graduation, they demonstrated their commitment, a factor in securing a spot in Darden's Progressive Incubator.

"We currently have several Internet ventures in the Progressive Incubator, but we're interested in promising teams and ventures -- period. So, we plan to include as broad a range of high-tech and 'new economy' companies as possible," said Wendell E. Dunn III, director of the Batten Institute. "Medical ventures, such as Setagon, are typical of the kinds of enterprises spinning out from major research universities like U.Va."


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