Entrepreneurs awarded $75,000 in annual Olin Cup competition

Start-ups offer high-tech solutions for sore ears and students

An on-line tutoring service and a device designed to make custom-fit earphones are the winners of the 2008 Olin Cup competition for entrepreneurs presented by the Olin Business School and Skandalaris Center at Washington University in St. Louis. The two winning companies, Virtual Nerd and Verto, emerged from an original field of 38 entrants to earn a $70,000 investment award and a $5000 cash prize respectively.

“We had a great diversity of ideas and entrepreneurs this year,” says Ken Harrington, Managing Director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “I am impressed by the quality of the ideas and how much they advanced their ventures during the year-long competition.”

The five finalists which included a personalized children’s book publisher, a concert recording company and a vocabulary-building game, in addition to the winners, presented their business ideas to an audience in Graham Chapel following an Assembly series question and answer session with entrepreneur Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear.

All new business ventures begin with an idea. For Leo Shmuylovich, co-founder of Virtual Nerd, the idea for an interactive, multimedia tutorial website to help students in math and science came while he was tutoring students one-on-one. The sixth year M.D./PhD. student at WUSTL is getting his doctorate degree in physics and holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University.

Shmuylovich wanted to be able to offer more students the advantage of tutoring and make it affordable. With his business partner Josh Salcman, the two have invested their own time and money to create an interactive site that tracks students’ questions and progress which can be shared with parents and teachers to improve the learning process.

Both of Virtual Nerd’s young entrepreneurs admitted they were “stunned and shocked – in a good way” about winning the $70,000 investment award. Shmuylovich whose business card reads, “Chief Scientific Nerd” said, “It was a great competition. We learned a lot about our own business. Winning puts some lightness in our step, it’s very motivating and very exciting.”

Seth Burgett, the founder and CEO of Verto came up with his award winning idea for custom-fit earbuds while participating in an iron man competition. An avid marathoner and triathlete, Burgett found extended use his iPod earphones was uncomfortable and prone to falling out of his ears. With a background in minimally invasive surgical devices for neurology, cardiology and ophthalmology, Burgett invented a unique, non-contact imaging technology to digitally scan an individual’s ears and produce a malleable cutom-fit ear-tip that attaches to iPod and mobile phone earbuds.

Verto’s “eartips” make earbuds comfortable and allow them to stay in during exercise and extended use. Burgett plans to test market the device this summer at triathlon and marathon races. He currently is a student in the Executive MBA program at Olin Business School.

Olin Cup competitors are eliminated through a series of business planning challenges by a team of 27 judges including WUSTL faculty and community business leaders. Skandalaris Center director Ken Harrington says they play an important role in helping entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses, “We are very grateful to the judges and local entrepreneurs for their input. All of the Olin Cup contestants receive valuable advice and feedback from them.”

Sponsors of the 2008 Olin Cup include: Lopata, Flegel & Company LLP, Polsinelli Shughart, RubinBrown, the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, Senniger Powers, Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal LLP and the Olin Business School. Innovate VMS of Innovate St. Louis provided mentoring services.

To enter the 2009 Olin Cup competition,visit: http://www.sc.wustl.edu/OlinCup/index.html.