As a Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) competition judge, I’ve seen some amazing business plans and given lots of feedback. These collegiate business plan competitions give aspiring university student entrepreneurs a real-world opportunity to test their business plans and elevator pitches in front of investors and industry leaders. In return, these young innovators receive industry mentoring and pitch feedback from high caliber judges. Ultimately, these resources can help university student entrepreneurs take their clean energy startup to the next level.
In 2016, 255 entrepreneurial university student teams applied for eight regional Cleantech UP competitions. Half of them were selected to compete, and only eight took home a first place prize. What helped these winners stand out in a crowded field, and how can other university student entrepreneur teams succeed next time?
Here are the five tips I give most often.
1. Understand who your customers are; emphasize their needs in your pitch
One of the biggest mistakes teams make when pitching their clean energy idea is not clearly stating who would potentially buy their product and why. Having a great technology and knowing who your key partners are is important. But ultimately, your pitch should clearly identify your potential customers and why your product is a good fit for them.
2. Determine your potential competitors and explain why your innovation is unique
Understanding your product’s market landscape is crucial to making your technology stand out. Remember, these competition judges have heard hundreds of pitches—and not just from student entrepreneurs. Demonstrate that you’ve researched other companies in the clean energy space you’re trying to enter and articulate your differentiation and competitive advantage. Not only will this strengthen your business plan, it will also help prove to the judges that you know your invention’s unique value and market opportunity.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Just do it, early and often. You’ll be more comfortable with your pitch and more confident in front of the judges. If you can, try to practice either on location or in similar settings. Presenting as a group? Make sure to clearly define each team member’s role in the pitch early on, and practice smooth transitions between team members.
4. Balance visual appeal with useful information
We’ve all seen PowerPoint presentations filled with tiny text or overly technical diagrams or abstract images. When putting together your pitch slide deck, think through what information is most important to the judges. Hitting the high points in your speech is vital, but having these stand out in your visuals is important too. Make sure the problem you’re solving, your unique value proposition, your financial projections, and your strategy for scaling and getting to market are clear, concise, and relevant to the story you’re telling the judges. Ultimately, this is the information your audience won’t forget.
5. Be explicit about how your technology fits into the clean energy sector
While not all business plan competitions focus solely on clean energy technologies, the collegiate Cleantech UP prizes do. This is important to remember as you’re applying to the program and preparing to pitch your innovation. Strongly answering how your product fits within the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy portfolio and how it could impact the clean energy space will help you succeed in these cleantech competitions.
Cleantech UP competitions give participants so much more than a cash prize. These opportunities connect you to mentors and physical resources that can improve your business model and help you execute your business plan. Whether you’re competing this year or in the future, you can take these simple tips and start improving your business pitch now.