#StartupColumbia Venture Competition

by John Cunningham April 16, 2015

One week from today, Columbia University's second annual #StartupColumbia Festival will bring together the Columbia and Manhattan entrepreneurial communites in celebration of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the creation of new ventures. This year, the Columbia Venture Competition (CVC) expands to be university wide with a total prize pool of $250,000 in cash grants. Each of five challenge tracks will award $50k, split among the top three teams.

Bad Elf not only sponsored this year's event, but as Bad Elf's CEO and a Columbia alumnus, I have been judging the competition. The process began back in February with a divide and conquer approach, as the judges reviewed the hundreds of first round entries submitted for consideration. Toward the end of March, the field narrowed for second round review and comment. Now, the finalists are preparing their pitches for the final round, which will be held on Thursday evening, followed by the full day conference and award announcements at Friday's event.

After reviewing more than twenty companies in the first round, I received another half dozen pitch decks and video presentations to score in the second round. The submissions ranged from clever niche concepts to broad, socially conscious initiatives. While some of the applications were simply initial concepts, more than a few demonstrated their founders' ability to get out and find customers that generated revenue out of the gate. The final round and conference speakers and panels should prove to be exciting and intellectually stimulating.

My first introduction to Columbia Entrepreneurship occurred several years ago through the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  My wife, Marina, and I graduated SEAS together in 1986 and were serving as co-chairs of the Engineering Parent's Council, since our two daughters, Alyson (EN12) and Erica (EN14) were attending the school.  That first year the Columbia Engineering Venture Competition was won by Cellanyx, a company building new predicative diagnostics for prostate cancer.

In the late 1980s, when the norm was to work for a big company, I began my career, although that model was beginning to transition from a lifetime career with one company to a lifetime of hopping between companies searching for new challenges. Time and experience convinced me that the best careers and jobs for the current generation will come from the creation of their own businesses, founded on unique, aggressive, and compelling visions for the application of technology. 

Of course, choosing the entrepreneurial path never follows a straight line, nor does it move broadly up and to the right as consistently as you would like! As Columbia Trustee and alumnus, Ben Horowitz, illustrates so well in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, every day running your own show challenges your courage, your intellect, and your empathy for others in ways that you never imagined. Riding that roller coaster forces you to adapt, grow, and learn at a pace you probably did not think you could manage.  In fact, you can't really manage it, but you can endure it. After all, the Columbia Experience, with the core curriculum and its reputation as the nation's most stressful college, does alot to prepare you for what comes next!

In the end, the benefits far outweigh the costs as the experience forges relationships, teaches focus, and uncovers true potential. I wish I had started on the entrepreneurship path when I was younger, but it was a different time. It is truly exciting to see the current generation embrace entrepreneurship with optimism and energy. Columbia has prepared you well for this, carpe diem!

I will be joined at the event by our Director of Marketing, Chris Allen, who will be manning our social platforms along the way - follow us on Twitter@badelfceo and Instagram.

We invite anyone attending to say hello. Good luck to all of the finalists in each of the competitive tracks.  Now, we are off to Lakeland, FL to do our retail duties and aviation industry networking at the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-in & Expo to kick off flying season.

John Cunningham
John Cunningham


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