If you have ever had an idea for a biotech or high tech product or service, here is a chance to turn your idea into a business reality. The University of Toronto's Innovation Foundation, in collaboration with a network of sponsors and partners, announced its second Business Plan Competition last week. The competition, which is accepting plans until the end of October, attracts entrepreneurs from a variety of disciplines and encourages them to turn their ideas and talent into solid business plans, while at the same time providing opportunities for participants to connect with funding and investors. "With the business plan competition, we wanted to create an environment where inventors and people with high tech or biotech ideas could work with other people interested in similar things. Together they will learn how to develop a business plan, create a management team, and how to acquire funding for the business", says Andrew Maxwell, technology manager with the Innovations Foundation.

The Innovations Foundation was founded by the university two decades ago, in an effort to help faculty and students develop their ideas into licensed technologies and profitable deals with manufacturers. As a part of the foundation's mandate to maximize the impact of an excess of $2 million spent on research every day at the University of Toronto and its affiliated institutions, the first business plan competition was held last year. That competition was open to students, postdocs, faculty, and alumni of the University of Toronto.

Last year's competition was a huge success, inspiring 200 entrepreneurs, working together in teams of 2 or more, to submit 40 business plans for in-depth analyses. The winners -- six in total, in the categories of "Most Promising Technology" and "Most Promising Business"--received over $100,000 of goods and services prizes and access to $3-million in financing from investors. James Shen is a U of T engineering graduate and part of the PhotoThermal Diagnostics team that won second prize in the Most Promising Technology category last year. Shen felt that the competition helped the team to focus on the strategy of the company, adding that it took skill to select one viable technology platform from the many ideas his team was generating at the time. "Winning in that event has also given us credibility and more confidence in approaching venture capitalists, and the publicity has been great for our exposure in the business world", says Shen.

The Innovations Foundation has decided to expand the current competition by broadening the eligibility to include entrepreneurs outside the university hub. "We and our sponsors realized that the business plan competition is a unique way of looking for new innovations in Ontario and we didn't want to exclude great ideas outside U of T," says Maxwell. In the previous competition, at least one member of each team had to be affiliated with the University if Toronto. In the current competition, participants from outside the campus can also link to the activities through numerous organizations that have teamed up with the Innovations Foundation to form the Innovations Network. These include internal University of Toronto organizations such as the Rotman School, the alumni organization, and the Entrepreneur club, as well as external organizations such as Liberty Village, Bio-Broker, Strategic Health Innovations, and the Canadian Youth Business Foundation.

Entrants needn't worry if they have never written a business plan before. The foundation is running a series of workshops in September designed to help entrants develop their business teams and plans. (Ed's note: You can find lots of good advice on writing business plans in a series of articles written by our own Charles Boulakia) Entrants can also go online to share their ideas and find team members. "Even if people don't have an idea of their own but want to get involved, they can request to join another team", says Maxwell, provided that the individual has skills that compliment the other teams' goals.

Business plans are submitted online using a "virtual business network" software system developed by the Toronto company, Venngo Inc. A panel made up of Innovation Foundation members, sponsors, venture capitalists and business experts grade all of the applications in several rounds. A separate panel then judges the top six plans, including an oral presentation and a demonstration of the technologies.

The competition attracts entries from a variety of disciplines, with the life sciences, Internet infrastructure, and software technologies being most popular in terms of applications. So, if you are scientist either thinking of setting up a business or in the very early stages of having set up a business, this might be the perfect launch pad for your dream.

Entries close 31 October 2001. Visit the Innovations Foundation Web site for more details.