Ken Williams had always planned a career path with a socially beneficial trajectory, but he didn’t expect entrepreneurship would be the vehicle. A Houston native who had recently finished his master’s degree in religion, Williams was living in Austin, Texas and working at Sunset Canyon Baptist Church, where he led groups of people around the world to work with non-profits for developing countries.
The entrepreneurship bug bit Williams after he met local business owners in the Austin area that were launching startups with a social impact.
Fast forward to late November of 2010, and Williams, now a Terry College of Business MBA student with a concentration in entrepreneurship, earned top honors in a business plan competition between the University of Georgia and TI:GER—Georgia Tech and Emory’s interdisciplinary entrepreneurship program—at the Atlanta Technology Development Center.
Williams, was one of several individuals and teams that presented three-minute pitches of their business plans to a panel of judges composed of six prominent entrepreneurs and angel investors in the Southeast. And as nice as it was to receive $700 in prize money for a winning plan, the fact that work could one day help save lives is the greatest value-add of all.
Williams’ winning plan was for T-BIT, which stands for Traumatic Brain Injury Test, a hand-held device that determines whether an athlete has a concussion. It is a tool that University of Georgia kinesiology professors Michael Ferrara and Phillip Tomporowski developed as part of an ongoing research project.
The two professors initially contacted Georgia’s business incubation program Venture Lab, which in turn reached out to Terry Entrepreneurship Program director Chris Hanks to assist with taking the professors’ research tool and turning it into a viable business.
Hanks presented the idea as a potential project to the students in his business plan course where Williams jumped at the chance. He created a sound business plan, and ultimately crafted a winning pitch. He says that it is connections to social entrepreneurship opportunities that Hanks provides that that led him to pursue his MBA at Terry.
“He told me of connections with similar entrepreneurs in Atlanta called Gray Ghost Venture Capital. They make investments only in businesses that have a social benefit and that appealed to my interest,” says Williams, who ultimately earned an internship at the firm last summer, thanks in part to Hanks.
In addition to his Terry MBA colleagues, Williams’ competition for the top honors included teams from the TI:GER program. TI:GER, which stands for Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results, is a competitive interdisciplinary program that groups two Emory law students with two MBAs and a PhD student from Georgia Tech who form five-member teams with a two-year goal to commercialize the doctoral candidate’s research.
Hanks explains that Williams’ ability to vividly illustrate a problem and show how his product could potentially prevent it was an effective method to connect with the venture capitalists on the panel.
“The idea was very topical and that helped him,” says Hanks, referring to Williams’ pitch, which began with a compelling example of the effects of head injuries sustained in contact sports such as football. “He started the presentation with a reference to Nathan Stiles, a Kansas high school football star, 4.0 student and homecoming king who passed away hours after collapsing on the sidelines after a routine play. It was his first game back after spending a month recuperating from a concussion.”
According to Hanks, it was one of many outstanding presentations from Terry, Georgia Tech and Emory students in an event that has tremendous value.
“People might say that it’s just a business plan competition. But the experience of designing a compelling business model and presenting it to some of the most influential people in the startup community is irreplaceable,” says Hanks, who noted that Terry’s overall showing generated praise from the venture community in attendance.
Williams says the practical experience he’s received from the Terry Entrepreneurship Program has given him the guidance to know how to look for help if he has an idea for a business.
“It is different from other programs where everything is theoretical and hypothetical because you’re only looking at case studies,” says Williams, who wants to work with entrepreneurs at an investment firm upon graduating. “You’re able to sit in front of real investors and present ideas and hear real feedback. They treat you as a real person doing a real project and not just someone studying it. That’s been fantastic for me.”