Palo Alto Start-Up Wins Business Plan Competition

A start-up company developing software that acts as a "smoke detector" to alert semiconductor manufacturers to potential problems in next-generation chip designs has won $10,000 in a business plan competition organized by MBA students in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis.

Gradient Design of Palo Alto won first place in the second annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition, designed to promote entrepreneurship, innovation and hands-on learning. The company's software aims to help engineers address critical power, thermal and reliability challenges in building nanometer-scale integrated circuits.

Gradient Design's team members include Kaustav Banerjee, the start-up's chief technology officer and a visiting professor at Intel's Microprocessor Research Labs; David Wang; Neerad Lal; Alex Popa; and Conlan Ma.

A panel of seven venture capitalists from the Sacramento region and the Bay Area, including three UC Davis alumni, served as judges and selected the first- and second-place winners in the final round. Results were announced on campus Thursday.

"The mentoring and advice we received from the venture capitalists through the Big Bang! was above and beyond any we had ever received before," said David Wang, an engineer with Gradient Design. "The feedback we got during the dry-run presentations was very, very helpful. We've been approached by multiple VC firms here and in the Silicon Valley."

Second place and $3,000 was awarded to LabInfo of Sacramento, which has blueprints for an application that would speed the way health-care providers and public health departments communicate, interpret and manage data on communicable diseases. The software is designed to better equip the public health system as a first line of defense against bioterrorism by providing real-time surveillance and analysis of disease outbreaks.

LabInfo's team includes David Hahn, a UC Davis senior; Matt Talbott, a UC Davis graduate; and Chris Soderquist, a UC Davis MBA graduate and founder of Venture Lab, a start-up incubator in West Sacramento.

"Looking over the five finalists, the level of enthusiasm and commitment to what they are doing really shone through more than what I've seen in past business plan competitions," said Harry Laswell, one of the judges and a general partner with American River Ventures in Roseville. "What made Gradient Design's proposal stand out was the probability of it being a venture-fundable company and having a protectable technology -- those were the signs that differentiated it from the rest."

As the audience's favorite, Improved Converters Inc. won the People's Choice award and $2,000. The early-stage energy technology company has a patented, environmentally friendly process that converts large amounts of municipal, industrial and toxic waste into low-cost, clean-burning fuel gases for generating electricity. The team includes founder and president Chris Kasten.

The two other finalists were:

* AKAAR of Folsom, which has developed a Web-based system to help consumers and retailers manage electronic credit and debit card transactions as well as archive and retrieve retail receipts for purchases. Team members are Avi Gupta; Raja Noori; and Kowshik Bhat, a UC Davis MBA graduate.

* GlowComm Systems Inc. of Fremont, which provides an infrastructure for safeguarding data on wireless devices. Team members are Ram Singh, Vasu Pappula, Arjun Jayaram, Chris Moore, and Suresh Biligiri. Professor Richard Dorf of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management serves on the company's advisory board.

"It was exciting for us to watch and learn as these young teams honed their pitches and modified their business plans as they proceeded through all the stages of the competition," said Matthew Weeks, competition co-chair. "Our vision is to establish the Big Bang! Business Plan Competition as part of a continuing educational process that will, over the course of time, help dozens of start-ups spring from the soil of the UC Davis research and academic communities."

After the competition's launch in January, students from the Graduate School of Management organized a mentoring program linking competitors with venture capitalists and intellectual property experts to help the teams craft business plans based on marketable ideas.

From a field of 25 teams, 11 were asked to each submit an executive summary of their business plan in February and a complete business plan in April. Following a review of the business plans, five teams were selected to make 15-minute presentations before judges Wednesday and before a public audience Thursday.

Throughout the competition, judges were asked to evaluate the summaries, plans and presentations as they would for ventures funded by their firms. The final judging panel included Roger Akers of Akers Capital in Sacramento; Raj Atluru of Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Redwood City; Brian Atwood of Versant Ventures in Menlo Park; Bill Lanfri of Accel Partners in Palo Alto; Harry Laswell of American River Ventures; Kenneth Miller of Granite Bay Ventures; and Mike Powell of Sofinnova Ventures in San Francisco.

The principal sponsor of the competition is the Sacramento office of Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich; other sponsors are Akers Capital, Accel Partners, American River Ventures, Granite Bay Ventures, Sofinnova Ventures, Versant Ventures and UC Davis CONNECT.

For more information on the competition, visit the Big Bang! Web site.

Media Resources

Julia Ann Easley, General news (emphasis: business, K-12 outreach, education, law, government and student affairs), 530-752-8248,

Matthew Weeks, Big Bang! co-chair, (209) 406 4803,

Corinna Krueger, Big Bang! co-chair, (916) 532 1744,

Tim Akin, Graduate School of Management, 530-752-7362,

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