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Start-Up Challenge enters year 5

It's a great story, that one about Sun Dance, law student Bradley Zimmer said.

No, not Sundance, the film festival. Sun Dance, the first undergraduate team to win the Duke Start-Up Challenge, an entrepreneurship competition whose presence has blossomed on national and international levels since its inception in 1999.

The idea behind Sun Dance, devised by markets and management students and a biology professor, was a new strain of corn that would, during times of drought or lack of fertilizer, double the cropfield that other strains of corn would normally produce under similar circumstances. It's the kind of corn that reassures farmers across America, the kind that could provide some degree of relief for third world countries around the globe. And it's the kind of idea that, when taken far enough, could win competitions like the Duke Start-Up Challenge.

The Challenge provides an education in entrepreneurship by utilizing resources in Research Triangle Park and bringing together various members of the Duke community to collaborate on business development. The Challenge offers more than $125,000 in start-up capital to the top concepts.

Zimmer helped to coordinate the third annual Challenge.

"[It is] certainly a very time consuming role," he admitted. But what proved to be personally rewarding for him was seeing companies become successes on the market. Sun Dance, for example, went on to work with the United Nations to fight starvation in Africa.

The fifth Challenge kicks off today at 6:30 p.m. with an information session at the Fuqua School of Business. Professor of Chemistry Michael Pirrung may be heading there tonight, as he has enthusiastically said that he will "definitely be participating."

Pirrung already has an idea in mind: His lab is working on a family of compounds that does what insulin does--lower blood glucose levels. The appeal of these compounds is that they can be taken orally rather than intravenously. What Pirrung hopes to find at the Challenge is someone to work with and go forward with the technology that they have. He's just a chemistry professor, after all, he says.

Though Pirrung may be one of several who already have an idea, Chief Communications Officer and Fuqua student Kira Scherer emphasized that participants are not required to have an idea yet.

"They don't even have to have a team yet," Scherer added. "It's a common misconception [about the Challenge]."

Betsy Albright, a graduate student at the Nicholas School of Environment, isn't sure if she'll enter the Challenge. But if she does, she'll choose the social enterprise track, which differs from the regular new enterprise track in that its participants are required to design a sustainable business that delivers social benefit. The winner and runners-up of the social enterprise track receive over $20,000.

"I think that would be the most interesting, trying to apply what I've learned in school and my job to make a difference in the community," Albright said.

Last year's winner in the social enterprise track was iCord, or Internet Clinically Oriented Database, which stores anonymous patient cases online.

"It gives you a brief description of the patient's history and symptoms," iCord member Susan Kansagra, who currently attends the joint M.D. and M.B.A. program at Duke, explained. "And then you go up there and try to diagnose the case yourself. So it's a learning tool. Anybody can use it."

The Challenge itself is divided into three phases, and the field is narrowed down along the way.

"We have 60, 70 judges. These judges are metrocapitalists, entrepreneurs, consultants, high level people in the industry," said Fuqua student Rik Vandevenne, the CEO of this year's competition. "We send them executive summaries or business plans and ask for feedback. They send us information about the plans, and then the field is narrowed, maybe to 70 percent of the original number of people that are competing."

The final phase of the competition-- "a fantastic opportunity to see the success of the students," Vandevenne said--consists of presentations and awards.

Last year, sophomore Michael Kalishman worked with friends from Missouri, engineers who had created indestructible lighting. During the final round of the Challenge, one demonstrated this feature by repeatedly pounding one of their products with a hammer. Nothing happened; the audience was impressed, and Mongo Light Company won the people's choice award.

Kalishman plans to enter the Challenge again this year: "You can do it again as long as you don't have the same company."

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