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A design for a high-tech closure for wine bottles that would allow the wine to breathe much like traditional bark corks won the $15,000 first prize in the annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition at the University of California, Davis. The contest is run by students in the Graduate School of Management.
The screw-cap concept, which could help prevent some $10 billion worth of wine from being ruined every year by cork taint, will compete next on May 28 at the Draper Fisher Jurvetson Venture Challenge in Palo Alto, Calif. The challenge pits the UC Davis team against the winners of business plan competitions at 15 other top west coast business schools. The prize: $250,000 in start-up funding.
"These students are trying things that more experienced people might say shouldn't be done," said Scott Lenet, managing director of DFJ Frontier and a volunteer judge for this year's Big Bang! Business Plan Competition. "That's why these business plan competitions are so important. These are the people who will create the next Microsoft, the next Amgen."
In addition to the first-prize-winning cork concept, a $5,000 second prize and $3,000 "people's choice" award -- selected by audience vote -- went to the same team: Arcus. Led by second-year MBA candidate Matt Vogel, who has had diabetes since adolescence, the team is developing technology that would allow people with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels by blowing into a small handheld device -- a pain-free alternative to current glucose monitoring, in which patients must prick their fingers to draw a blood sample two to eight times a day.
The Big Bang! competition, founded in 2000 by students at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, is designed to reward innovation at UC Davis and encourage entrepreneurship in the region at large. Previous winners and finalists have gone on to form such companies as Bloo Solar, Instant Effects and Improved Converters.
This year's Big Bang! awards were announced on campus Wednesday evening, following presentations of the five finalists' plans. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 275 people at a ballroom at the Activities and Recreation Center.
The high-tech wine cap was developed by MBA student Tim Keller, a UC Davis viticulture and enology alumnus who worked for 10 years as a winemaker in Sonoma and Napa counties before enrolling in the Graduate School of Management, and his teammates, Kevin Chartrand and Diana Mejia. Chartrand, a fellow MBA candidate with an undergraduate degree in materials science, worked as a thin-film expert at IBM. Mejia, a former engineer for Anheuser-Busch, is earning a master's degree in food engineering at UC Davis.
Their team, Advanced Enological Closures, set out to design a better bottle cap because cork taint, a byproduct of a fungus that infects cork and makes wine smell like moldy mop water or sweaty gym socks, now contaminates the corks of an estimated one in 20 wine bottles on store shelves, ruining billions of dollars of wine annually. Although synthetic corks have been developed in response to the problem, they allow too much oxygen into the bottle, according to Keller. Overly oxidized wine has a shorter shelf life and can develop a fingernail-polish odor. Screw caps -- another alternative to bark corks -- are a viable option for wine white, but do not allow in enough oxygen for fine red wines, Keller said. Without enough oxygen to draw on, red wines start to smell like burned rubber or matchsticks as they age.
The team's design, a "breathing screw cap," has small vent holes and is fitted with a liner made of alternating layers of thin metal and a porous polymer. The liner can be customized to allow optimal oxidation for specific varietals, something that is impossible with bark corks. A patent is pending for the design.
"If you open up lots of bottles of the same wine, you'll notice variability from bottle to bottle because of differences in the amount of oxygen that gets in," Keller said. "With cork, you just never know. Our product will give a level of control that the wine industry has never had."
The cap would sell for 20 cents a unit -- or 10 to 11 cents per unit less than cork-and-foil closures, and only 5 cents more per unit than ordinary screw caps and synthetic corks, according to the team's projections.
With this year's prizes, UC Davis Big Bang! has awarded a total of $143,000 to 24 promising student-initiated projects, becoming one of the best-known business plan competitions on the West Coast. From November through May each year, dozens of students, researchers and entrepreneurs from UC Davis and the private sector invest hundreds of hours honing their business ideas for the chance to win cash and network with investors, intellectual property attorneys and business leaders. Teams must include at least one UC Davis student, alumnus, or staff or faculty member.
Some of Northern California's largest employers, venture capital firms and law practices provide the prize money, coaching and volunteer judges. This year, more than 14 companies sponsored the contest.
"Why do we do it? We do it for fun. We do it because it's a good thing to do. And we do it because true economic development and real job growth really begins with entrepreneurship," said venture capitalist Roger Akers of Akers Capital, who helped judge this year's competition and arranged private-sector mentors to work with teams.
The competition opened with a field of 36 business plan submissions that were eventually whittled down to the five finalists.
Four of the five finalists were also winners in a Little Bang contest in February sponsored by UC Davis InnovationAccess, which encourages more campus scientists to explore the market potential for their research.
The three other Big Bang! finalists announced Wednesday were:
* CEDR, a company with a simple solution to avoiding rolling blackouts during peak power demands. The nascent company seeks to market a system developed by electronics engineer Joel Snook, a 1983 graduate of the UC Davis School of Engineering who now heads NEV Electronics, a Grass Valley, Calif.-based consulting service. The system would allow utilities to automatically shut off 50 percent of the lighting load at participating commercial buildings at the flip of a switch or via wireless signal. Temporarily turning off half the lights would not impair workplace productivity, but could spare California the need to build 160 new power plants in the next 10 years, the team argues. A demonstration system has been installed at UC Davis' California Lighting Technology Center.
* WicKool, a company with a device that takes the chilly condensation that forms on air conditioner coils and uses it to help cool air. According to WicKool spokesman Siva Gunda, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at UC Davis, the retrofit device makes rooftop air conditioners up to 9 percent more efficient. The technology was developed by Dick Bourne, associate director of the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center. A patent is pending for the design, and the company has signed agreements with Wal-Mart and Target to test the technology at the retailers' Sacramento area stores.
* PuriTea, a company with a concept for a portable personal water filter in the shape of a tea bag. "You put it in a cup of water and it sucks up the bad stuff," said David Wong, a program manager at Cisco Systems and student in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management's Bay Area MBA Program for Working Professionals in San Ramon. The concept uses a nanobead technology developed by Michael Wong, a chemical engineering professor and head nanomaterials researcher at Rice University, who happens to be Wong's brother.
"Something special happens when you mix a great technology, a good business plan and prize money," said Nicole Woolsey Biggart, dean of the management school. "Big Bang! is a showcase of what is happening at UC Davis -- big ideas, and a growing entrepreneurial spirit. The final competition, with hundreds of spectators, is as much fun as a championship sporting event."
Said first-year MBA student Elizabeth Collett, co-chair of this year's Big Bang! organizing committee: "This year's slate of finalist teams shows that we've successfully accomplished one of the main goals of Big Bang! -- bringing innovative UC Davis researchers and their technology together with MBA students to create viable new business opportunities."
About UC Davis
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 for undergraduates and business development programs in which doctoral science students develop skills to commercialize research.
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