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Ensembles, Mesolytics Share First Place in Business Plan Competition

May 18, 2006

Two start-up companies -- one that helps busy families prepare nutritious, home-cooked meals and a biomedical venture that is developing a handheld diagnostic tool for health care professionals -- each have won $10,000 in a business plan competition at the University of California, Davis.

Ensembles LLC of San Ramon and Mesolytics of Davis shared the first place award in the sixth annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition, organized by MBA students of the Graduate School of Management to promote entrepreneurship, innovation and hands-on learning.

Both top winners aim to capitalize on an underserved need for convenience, speed and efficiency in their market niche. Visitors to Ensembles, which will open its first store in San Ramon on May 31, will be able to create 8 to 14 healthy, ready-to-cook meals that are personalized to their family's tastes. The company says customers can save hours of shopping, preparation and clean-up time. The team members are co-owners Juliet Hodder, a candidate in the UC Davis Bay Area MBA program, Leslie Leach and executive chef Ann-Marie Ramo.

Hodder said the advice and feedback from mentors and judges they met through the competition have been invaluable for mapping the future growth of the company.

"What the Big Bang! experience has helped us do is to think big and allowed us to move beyond our first store, which is really easy to get wrapped up into," said Hodder. "It's pushed us out of our initial go-to-market bubble and made us think beyond our first few milestones."

Mesolytics hopes to give health care professionals a portable tool to quickly diagnose medical ailments using a swab of patients' saliva or drop of blood. The platform is based on nanowire technology proven to detect a single virus with laboratory sensitivity. Disposable test cartridges will target influenza, including the H5N1 "avian flu" subtype. Future efforts will address other respiratory ailments, HIV and common sexually transmitted diseases, and biosecurity hazards such as exposure to anthrax and plague. The team hopes to set up its manufacturing in West Sacramento. Team members are Zane Starkewolfe and Dan Masiel, both graduate students in chemistry at UC Davis; and two UC Davis alumni -- Kara Schmelzer, who has a doctorate in pharmacology, and Farley Stewart, who has a master's in business administration.

"We were able to bring together physics, chemistry, bioelectrical engineering plus the management capability all to form a team, which would not have been possible without the UC Davis Little Bang and Big Bang! competitions," said Stewart. "It's a great example of campus researchers and MBA students coming together in a powerful way."

A panel of eight judges -- mostly venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from the Sacramento region and the Bay Area -- served as judges and selected the two winners to share the total prize money for first ($15,000) and second ($5,000) places. Results were announced at a campus event Wednesday evening.

"There was a nice spread here of different types of finalists -- consumer product, food sciences, electronic design automation, biomedical and nanotechnology, which is a much broader engagement into the university's technology community," said Harry Laswell, general partner of American River Ventures in Roseville. Laswell, who had judged the first three competitions, said he has seen a significant improvement in the quality of the business plans and the preparation of the presenters.

"For the first time, we have a field of teams in the Big Bang! that are going to get funded, some may be funded by angel investors, maybe one or two will actually be venture capital-funded," said Scott Lenet, another judge and the managing director of venture capital firm DFJ Frontier in West Sacramento. "It speaks well to what is happening here at UC Davis.

"In particular, Ensembles is demonstrating that without a lot of resources they've been able to make a lot of progress and demonstrate their commitment to doing this with their own money -- they're real entrepreneurs," Lenet said.

"Mesolytics is based on core UC Davis science that is hard to duplicate," Lenet added. "It's really interesting technology that could fill a real need in the point-of-care market. It's much harder to see how successful they are going to be because there's a lot of competition chasing that market and getting the business side of it right is a challenge."

SmartMomsCircle of Sacramento won the People's Choice award and $2,000 as the audience's favorite after a second round of presentations Wednesday evening. The company plans to build an online community for stay-at-home parents who want to keep up with their careers. The Web site will enable parents looking after young children at home to network and get work, increasing their income and making for an easier adjustment when they return to full-time jobs. Team members are Rose Elley, Elena Naderi and Alexander Vanderbilt, all UC Davis alumni; Jason Montgomery, a junior economics major at UC Davis; Laura Iriarte and Garrett Wilson.

The three other Big Bang! finalists were:

  • SOYum!, a manufacturer of a soy-based substitute for eggs and milk. SOYum! could be used by health-conscious consumers to produce healthier food lower in cholesterol and saturated fats, and by people who have allergies to eggs or dairy products. The team members are Mark Gannon, an MBA candidate at UC Davis, and Brad Olsen, Laura Pallas and Marco Garcia, all graduate students in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis.
  • New software for improving the design of microchips is the business objective of Innovative Design Automation (IDA), founded by Jorge Campos, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at UC Davis, and MBA candidates Brian Hoblit and Benedict Mok. Taking a lead from evolutionary biology, their product aims to use random changes and selection to reduce semiconductor chip development time and costs by up to 30 percent.
  • Nova Chemicals aims to develop and sell new types of materials for packaging microelectronic circuit boards. The new materials have better physical properties and are more reliable than current products on the market, and could reduce packing time by almost 50 percent. Team members are Dakota Coe, an MBA/JD candidate at UC Davis, and Frank F. Shi.

Pramod Parihar, an MBA student and chair of the competition, said, "The quality of the business plans this year were superb and the connections that have been made are a testament to the goal of the Big Bang! Many of the teams represent partnerships between Graduate School of Management students and alumni and world-class UC Davis scientists and researchers."

"Big Bang! and the Graduate School of Management remain committed to spreading the entrepreneurial spirit, both on campus and throughout the region," he said.

After the competition's launch in October, MBA students from the management school organized a series of workshops to help competitors craft business plans based on marketable ideas. Topics ranged from protecting intellectual property to financial planning.

For the second consecutive year, Big Bang! coordinated with UC Davis CONNECT Business Development, a campus program that supports the commercialization of UC Davis technologies, to hold a series of five "Little Bang" poster competitions designed to encourage more campus scientists to explore the market potential for their research. More than 20 teams participated in the Little Bang competitions, which serve as a stepping stone to the Big Bang!

Four of the Big Bang! finalists -- Nova Chemicals, IDA, Mesolytics and SOYum! -- took part in the "Little Bang" poster competitions held in February. In that competition, SOYum! and Mesolytics were winners in the "Foods for Health and Wellness" and "Nanotechnology" categories, respectively. Nova Chemicals and IDA tied as runners-up in the "Computational Science and Information Technology" category.

From among 14 Big Bang! teams that submitted executive summaries of their business plans, 12 qualifiers were asked to submit complete business plans in mid-April. After a review of the business plans, six teams were selected to make 12-minute presentations before judges Wednesday afternoon and a second eight-minute presentation before a public audience Wednesday evening.

Throughout the competition, judges were asked to evaluate the summaries, plans and presentations as they would for ventures funded by their own firms. In addition to Laswell and Lenet, the final judging panel included: Kevin Coyle, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary; John Hamer, Burrill & Company; Andrew Hargadon, associate professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management; Javed Iqbal, angel investor and entrepreneur; Dan Lankford, Capital Valley Ventures; Harry Laswell, American River Ventures; Scott Lenet, DFJ Frontier; and Carl Schwedler, McDonough Holland & Allen PC.

About 55 firms provided financial sponsorship or their representatives led workshops, groomed teams or judged the competition.

The lead sponsor was DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. Major sponsors included the UC Davis Medical Center, DFJ Frontier and Arête Therapeutics. Other sponsors included CleanStart, Fenwick & West, FedEx Kinko's, Akers Capital, American River Ventures, Capital Valley Ventures, First US Community Credit Union, McDonough Holland & Allen, Javed Iqbal, and the Associated Students of Management at UC Davis.

For more information on the competition, visit the Big Bang! Web site at http://bigbang.gsm.ucdavis.edu.

Established in 1981, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management provides management education to nearly 400 students enrolled in Daytime MBA and Working Professional MBA programs on the UC Davis campus, in Sacramento, and in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also offers a technology management minor degree program for undergraduates and business development programs in which doctoral science students develop skills to commercialize research.

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