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Business plan competitions get big boost from BrickStreet

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Steven Cutright, director of the recently renamed BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics. Steven Cutright, director of the recently renamed BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics.
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If business plan competitions foster entrepreneurship, then the state's entrepreneurial future got a big boost Feb. 26 with the BrickStreet Insurance Foundation's gift of $3 million to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at West Virginia University.

"It gives me great pleasure to announce the BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship," said Jose "Zito" Sartarelli, Milan Puskar Dean of the College of Business and Economics, in recognition of the largest corporate donation in the college's history. B&E houses the center.

"The naming of this center will take our efforts to a different level because we'll be able to do more and new things, Sartarelli said.

The college wasted no time, quickly announcing a partnership with the state Department of Education in a new West Virginia High School Business Plan Competition.

"We're working with Dr. Kathy D'Antoni, assistant state superintendent of schools, and Gene Coulson, who directs the Office of Career and Technical Innovation for the state Department of Education," said Center for Innovation Director Steven Cutright. "It will be open to the 157 high schools across the state and open to 37,000 juniors and seniors, and we hope to launch in the fall of 2013."

The high school competition-in-planning builds on B&E's long experience with the high-profile college-level West Virginia Statewide Business Plan Competition the center hosts each year.

In its seven years, that competition has attracted participation from students at 14 of the state's 21 colleges and universities. And it grows every year: The 2012-13 event, under way since September and rolling toward finals in the spring, drew 141 entries from 11 schools, both records for the program.

The BrickStreet funding will pay for staff and software to take the collegiate competition to a new level, Cutright said.

"For 2013-14, we're looking to expand the breadth of the program to bring in more participants, but also to develop the depth — to get better business ideas, more sustainable companies," Cutright said.

The center has recognized that its September competition entry deadline doesn't leave a lot of time at the beginning of a school year for teams to form and develop their ideas.

The plan is to push the deadline back to October and, more importantly, to give teams a running start by getting them going the previous spring — that is, teams interested in participating in the 2013-14 competition would get started in just a couple months.

"Professors across the state can get their students working on what they'll propose in the fall — giving them time to do more research, develop their ideas," Cutright explained. "That will improve the innovation aspect."

To motivate that early start, the center is about to create a video featuring Gov. Earl  Ray Tomblin will introduce and explain the value of the competition for professors, students and others.

For future years, the center is looking at adding two new competition tracks, Cutright said. To the existing two tracks of Innovation & Lifestyle and Hospitality & Tourism would be added one on Energy, possibly in 2014-15, and one on Health and Science a little later.

The center also may seek additional direct funding to add to the current $10,000 first prize in each track a second prize of $5,000.

It all helps meet WVU's objectives of business development and economic development, Cutright said, and also of experiential learning that provides career readiness.

The BrickStreet Foundation gift to the center — part of a larger gift of $4 million to the university — was one of a number of possible gifts suggested by the university when BrickStreet asked for some giving options, said BrickStreet Mutual Insurance President and CEO Greg Burton.

"This was the one we thought was the  best fit for what we wanted — to give back to the community and try to make an impacts on jobs in West Virginia," Burton said. "We thought doing something from an entrepreneurship  standpoint, getting new businesses up and going, would be a great thing."

About the new high school business plan competition, he commented, "It's a great opportunity for high school kids to learn about entrepreneurship and to learn about WVU — just a great chance for them to get some hands-on experience bout how to set up a company, how to do what it takes to run a business."