Business titans of the future? Rice's biz plan showdown

April 10, 2012: 9:35 AM ET

Ultraviolet cell phone disinfectants, bloodstain testers, and a brand new use for dry ice are just a few of the pitches at this year's Rice University Business Plan Competition.

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

FORTUNE -- Four students at the Georgia Institute of Technology think they have a solution for thousands of struggling brick makers in Vietnam -- a company that would retrofit kilns to increase efficiency and reduce pollution.

A student team at Stanford University wants to commercialize a technology that could test the age of bloodstains at crime scenes.

And at Brigham Young University, a handful of students and recent alums have plans to sell a product that would disinfect your phone while you sleep.

These would-be companies, plus 39 others, will go head to head for funding at the Rice University Business Plan Competition this week. The three-day competition, which kicks off on Thursday, is at the forefront of the booming business plan competition circuit. It is hosted by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the university's entrepreneurship program, along with the school's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business. While most major business schools host their own competitions, the Rice event is the richest and largest of its kind in the country, with more than $1 million in prizes and investments doled out to competitors every year.

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A total of 1,600 entrants vied for one of the competition's 42 spots, making this year the most competitive ever. The pot is bigger than ever, too. Some $1.25 million is on the line, and the top team will take home at least $479,300 in cash and investments. Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, the U.S. Department of Energy, the nonprofit GOOSE Society of Texas, and Fortune Magazine are among the events sponsors this year.

This year's competitor lineup is dominated by life sciences and green tech. Three groups are selling enhanced wastewater treatment technology. Three others think they can improve electric cars by building more efficient lithium ion batteries. And one particularly enterprising team from John Hopkins University wants to use dry ice -- a widely available material in developing countries because of soda distribution networks -- to redesign the way precancerous lesions are removed in underserved hospitals.

Though business plan competitions have yet to produce a household name company, organizers insist it's more than just an academic exercise. After all, it has the ring of a time-honored success myth: A bunch of perversely motivated students in a dorm room poring over potentially game changing technologies and tweaking a business plan in the hopes of taking over the world -- or at least finding a profitable exit.

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Rice says that of the 199 companies that launched since the competition was founded 12 years ago, 121 are still in business. So there's a chance that BYU's ultraviolet cell phone disinfecting equipment -- a perfect product for a germ phobic nation -- really could be the next big thing. (And maybe with good reason: According to a Stanford University study, cell phones carry 18 times more bacteria than the flush handle in a typical men's restroom.)

Also worth watching is Kentucky Chia from the University of Louisville. The school took home the top prize last year with TNG Pharmaceuticals, a company pursuing a vaccine to protect cattle from horn flies. This year's team aims to combat premature death in horses by feeding them chia seeds. It's an ancient solution, the group says, but their patent-pending technology -- which allows the seeds to be grown domestically -- could be a game changer.

Another formidable contender: SpatiaLink from the University of Arkansas, which has performed well at Rice in recent years. The group's seasoned management team wants to sell software that would help retailers keep tabs on their supply chain and maximize shelf space.

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Perhaps the wildest idea this year comes from a team called Senseye at the IT University of Cophenhagen in Denmark, one of eight international contenders at the competition. The group says their company will develop technology that will allow you to turn on (and control) your smart phone just by looking at it. Per the company description, voice control for phones -- like the iPhone's Siri -- may be making headlines, but "the next big thing is eye control."

Stay tuned to the Fortune management section for updates on which of these teams curries the favor of this year's judges. And follow us @fortunemagazine for on-the-ground dispatches from the event's elevator pitch competition, the finals, and more.

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