Nanochallenge: The Winners

I just spent a fascinating (and busy) 48 hours as a judge for Veneto Nanotech’s Nanochallenge competition. For those not familiar with the event, it offers a prize of 200,000 euros plus 100,000 of ‘in kind’ benefits such as facilities, administrative and legal support for the winner. While this may not be much to a Nanosys, it is prizes of this order that can make all the difference to start ups, and allow them to further develop their product to the stage where it becomes attractive the venture capital, or give them the boost they need to start acquiring customers and getting sales under their belt.

The competition attracted a huge number of entries from around the world, and with the help of Price Waterhouse these were whittled down to 20 finalists who then converged, along with the judges on the Italian city of Padova (Padua) to do battle for the single prize on offer. This was actually the culmination of a whole week of nanotech related events, including our own EuroFutureTex, NanoRoadmap and a nanotech exhibition.

The first morning was dedicated to five minute pitches from each team, with the aim of selecting ten teams to go through to the next round and have a fifteen minute pitch to the judges. What became immediately apparent was that there was not a single ‘nanotechnology’ company among them, but all of them were making use of nanotechnologies to attack markets from cosmetics to medical diagnostics, and building materials to homeland security. This took place in a fresco covered room just below where Galileo used to lecture while students outside noisily celebrated the start of the ‘official’ academic year and others when through a series of graduation rituals unique to Padova.

From the ten teams selected to give some more detail, three were then selected for an hours in depth interrogation which took place on Saturday morning. Selecting a winner is never easy, and balancing the concerns of local industry and bankers with those of British, French and American VCs led to a number of changes in the favourites to win as the three stages progressed. While it is not possible to do an in depth due diligence on 20 business plans in 48 hours, the selection process did allow us to get a very clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

As always with regionally funded events, one of the questions often asked was ‘what benefit does the company bring to the Veneto region?’ and to their credit, most of the teams had addressed this issue.

I won’t pre-empt the official announcement of the winner from Veneto Nanotech, but there is a positive result for everyone, as they get the opportunity to present before a panel of experts on nanotechnology, business development and venture capital, and the experience gained, and feedback received is often invaluable in helping the shape the future plans of each business. None of the companies that made it to Padua were bad companies. All of them had some viable technology that could be turned into a sustainable business. In some cases they were simply too early, others needed to take a second look at the markets they had chosen, while others needed to address management related issues. As a result, some will change their business plans, others will get funded elsewhere, and yet others may come back for a second try next year, but if you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.

It is not only the competing teams who gain from the experience, but also the judges, While events such as this give the opportunity to renew old friendships and embark on new ones in a rather beautiful setting, it does give us the opportunity to catch the zeitgeist of nanotechnology, to get an idea of where entrepreneurial enthusiasm is being directed, and gain a better understanding of what technologies may actually get to market. The hosts, Veneto Nanotech, and their local partners also now have a far better first hand understanding of the range of nanotechnologies available, and will be able to use this to refine their future plans.

So, despite there only being one official winner, in the end, we all win.

Comments 4

  1. Is this really the best way to further the commercialization of nanotechnology. In our experience there is plenty of money available for a nanotechnology that addresses a real market, understands the value chain and channel dynamics, and has a few good people on the team.

    I guess the next region will need to up the ante and at some point we will see $1 million prizes.

    Bo Varga
    Managing Director
    Silicon Valley Nano Ventures

  2. While it is indeed true that there is no shortage of money available, initiatives such as Nanochallenge address the funding gap, the area between 100, 000 and a million dollars that, in the US, would be the territory of angel investors.

    The funding situation in Europe is quite different, and while there is plenty of money available for larger deals, there is little activity by angels in comparison with the US.

    I would suggest that what we need is more such initiatives, smaller amounts of money that will get companies from a science project to a product, and get the company into a position where they would either be attractive to VCs, or more likely, start generating sales or licensing revenue.

    A secondary benefit is that before this initiative, who would have linked Padua with nanotechnologies? In terms of raising awareness, the 200,000 euro prize has done much more than a series of newspaper advertisements ever could.

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