By David Kaplan
Like generations of entrepreneurs before her, Julie Rassat started sketching out the idea for the company she wanted to start on a restaurant napkin.
But the problem she wanted to solve was unique to the digital age: She couldn’t find the movie she wanted to watch.
She was dying to see a film that had been made in Thailand. It had won awards, but at the time she couldn’t get it on Netflix and she missed it when it briefly played at a theater in London, where she lived. “That’s crazy,” she thought. People from anywhere in the world should be able to access art-house films from any country.
That was three years ago. This week, Rassat is in Houston to pitch her company, FilmShaker, to a group of 250 judges — mostly investors and entrepreneurs themselves — at the 14th annual Rice Business Plan Competition at Rice University.
At stake is a total of $1.6 million in prize money for the 42 competing teams from schools as far away as Kenya, Bangladesh and Taiwan and as close by as the University of Houston.
Rassat, an executive MBA student at the London Business School, described being on a date with a fellow film buff and brainstorming for hours on ways to make movies like the one she wanted to see, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” available to anyone who wanted to see it.
“I can solve this! I can find a way!” she recalled exclaiming around 4 a.m.
The result was FilmShaker, which she describes as a Netflix for independent movies, including niche audience films.
Judges for the business plan competition, sponsored annually by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and held at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, will rank team presentations based on how likely they would be to invest in the company.
The competition has come far in 14 years, said Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.
The first year, nine teams competed for a total of $10,000, he said, and it was mostly an academic exercise. Today, the students have viable business plans that people can invest in.
One judge, Boston-based investor Praveen Tailam, marveled that the competitors are “still kids in school.” Their presentations often rival those of seasoned entrepreneurs, he said.
Burke said he has seen a sea change in the mindset of business-minded college students. Fewer millennials want to work for big corporations, and if they do it’s often just to get some training, he said.
“They want to start something,” he said. “They’re innovators who want to take new technologies and transform society.”
For example, last year’s grand prize winner, Northwestern University’s SiNode Systems, is developing a lithium-ion battery that has 10 times the power of the current battery and can recharge in one tenth the time, he said, and such technology could revolutionize the cell phone and auto industries.
This year’s competition has its innovators. The team NuFortis from the University of Illinois at Chicago is working on a technology to monitor the structural integrity of a bridge to alert engineers to any problems before it collapses.
One of the Rice teams, NanoLinea, is developing an implant made of carbon nanotube fibers. The patch is placed over scar tissue in the heart to prevent arrhythmia, which can lead to cardiac arrest.
A number of teams from past competitions may be on their way to success, Burke said.
One previous competitor, now a Houston-based company called OsComp, has raised tens of millions of dollars in capital funding to help it develop technology for the movement and storage of natural gas.
This year’s grand prize is $395,000, with a $100,000 bonus if the winner agrees to base the business in Houston.
Teams also have the chance to win additional awards valued at $4,000 to $125,000 and sponsored by venture capitalists, public agencies and other private investors. They can also approach the investor/judges individually about possible investments.
That networking opportunity is critical, said NanoLinea team member Colin Young, a Rice Ph.D. student in applied physics. Some of the judges, he said, may want to invest in his startup one day.
The UH team, Wavve, also has a nanotechnology-related business plan. Wavve produces a nanotechnology-based coating for water purification and is the first UH team to compete at the Rice event.
Rassat and her FilmShaker team members are seeking $400,000 to fund a soft launch.
She hopes to launch the site as soon as July.