Share story

Alysa Joaquin is a University of Washington chemical-engineering major by day who is helping to develop gold nanoparticles to dye hair a variety of colors.

“I wish I could just do this all the time,” Joaquin said of her entrepreneurial endeavor.

As a member of the GoldyLochs team, Joaquin competed Wednesday at the annual University of Washington Foster School of Business Plan Competition against 35 other teams of students from colleges around the state.

More than 300 judges wandered around the bustling Husky Union Building Ballroom, asking questions or being pulled in by animated entrepreneurs pitching their ideas and showing off prototypes. Decked in everything ranging from traditional business attire to matching green ties and hard hats, to printed T-shirts with catchy slogans, the students worked hard to capture the fleeting attention of judges’ eyes and ears amid the chaos and cacophony.

Fifteen years ago, a campus startup competition was an innovation. Now it is a fundamental part of most top business schools nationwide.

Connie Bourassa-Shaw, who created the local competition, advises investors to never underestimate the students, who range from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates. “These are college students today,” she said. “But a year from today, you’re not gonna recognize them.”

Since 1998 the event has awarded $1.3 million to 105 student-run companies. After several more rounds of competition, this year’s winner will receive a $25,000 grand prize funded by the Herbert B. Jones Foundation.

The students prepare for months and receive coaching from Seattle angel investors, entrepreneurs, lawyers and venture capitalists provided by the program.

Inventions ranged from a roll-up tablet for construction workers to a smart polymer contact lens to deliver insulin to diabetics.

Students touted models for a mobile application that teaches singing basics, an industrial water-treatment system and a virtual sizing tool for online shoppers.

Current judge and 2010 second-place winner Jacqueline Gjurgevich described the event as the major “launching place” for the success of her growing company Stockbox, which offers affordable fresh produce in urban food deserts.

It wasn’t the money that did it, though.

“It was the audience and the community it presented to get the exposure we needed,” Gjurgevich said.

Last year’s third-place finalist created JoeyBra, a pocketed bra that can store money and cellphones, which has since expanded and been featured nationally.

Gravity Payments, which competed in 2007, has become the largest credit processor based in Washington state.

But some judges don’t foresee all stars in the future. Business coach Jack Donner said he observed a lot of “school kid dreams” that aren’t realistic given the market.

Some ideas are already up and running.

Chinese Radio Seattle, which currently operates on 1150 KKKM public radio, wants to expand the station to include more programs and to start paying employees.

Judges noted a major focus on consumer products and service/retail in this year’s submissions. Other strong trends included IT and software development, environmental innovation, targeted social networks, and solutions to world health problems.

UW team InsuLenz, which treats diabetics via a contact lens, hopes to change the world with or without the prize money.

Rather than nervous, team marketing coordinator Craig McNary said he was excited about the competition and a prospective patent.

“We all know someone with diabetes.”

Alysa Hullett: 206-464-2718 or