An amazingly diverse line-up of young firms are vying for success in an entrepreneurial competition, writes Iain Laing.
Would-be university business tycoons are lining up to do battle for the biggest cash prize fund of any business planning competition in the UK.
Entrants to Blueprint, the North-East Universities Business Planning Competition, gathered last week at the Hilton NewcastleGateshead to trial their business plan pitches to this year's sponsors, for advice and feedback ready for the October final when judges will ultimately decide who shares prizes worth more than £100,000, including cash of £35,000.
Each of the North-East's five universities has held its own business planning competition and the winners of these go forward to the Blueprint region-wide final.
For this final stage, the entrants present their business plans to separate judging panels in either the Blueprint Business Awards and/or the Blueprint Science and Technology Awards. The Science and Technology awards are also open to academic staff teams to enter.
At last week's Pilot Your Pitch event, each competing team was given a taste of what awaits them in the final.
They laid their business plans before this year's sponsors in a five-minute pitch, followed by a 10-minute question and answer session. Professor Brian Tanner, director at the North-East Centre for Scientific Enterprise, said: "Pilot Your Pitch has been immensely successful. We've had a positive response from the sponsors who have been impressed with the quality of the presentations and appreciated the opportunity to network informally with the contestants. Now in its third year, Blueprint goes from strength to strength and this year the calibre of entrants has been even greater than in previous years. What is striking, and encouraging, is the number of competitors who are already trading."
Tickets are now available for the Grand Final of Blueprint. The black-tie dinner and ceremony will be on Wednesday, October 18, at the Hilton NewcastleGateshead.
* Blueprint is sponsored by leading North-East organisations and businesses.
These are: Baker Tilly, Consett Innovation Centre, Cenamps, Dickinson Dees, Entrust, National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE), NEL Fund Managers, NStar, Newcastle City Council City Technology Office, One NorthEast, RTC North, Tyne and Wear Development Company, Ward Hadaway plus a number of supporters. The support of the sponsors, and commitment to the competition, plays a vital role in driving innovation in the region.
Durham University entrants
* Durham Mag-Lev Systems - Robert Muscroft, a PhD student and David Sims-Williams, his supervisor, have developed a system whereby a near half-size Formula One car can be suspended in a powerful magnetic field, allowing wind tunnel tests to maximise aero-dynamic efficiency without any physical supports disrupting air flow over the vehicle.
The system, based on five years of research, uses super-conductors and a special arrangement of magnets to allow larger wind tunnels to operate, using a fraction of the energy of rival systems. Robert and Phillip are working on a fully-integrated prototype.
* Auricularis - Simon Creek's business plan is for manufacture and retail of foam-based ear pads to be fitted to bud ear phones to improve comfort and security of fit.
Simon, in the second year of a Mathematical Sciences PHD, has applied for a patent and is working with a design firm on a prototype.
* TeraNova - Founded by Professors Nickolay Zinov'ev and Martyn Chamberlain of the Department of Physics, the company designs, markets, manufactures and sells diagnostic devices/microscopes using a Terahertz coherent pulse frequency.
* Vimuse - Daniel Rackham and team have developed a unique marketing web application, offering marketing solutions to help the leisure and retail industry interact with their ideal consumer groups in a revolutionary way, by targeting the optimum potential customers depending on availability, location, interests and social groups.
The tool combines the explosion in popularity of online social networking, and user-generated content to offer the convergence of differing interests of the consumers and leisure industry. Development of the POC test nears completion and the company has secured vital partnerships to launch the product at the beginning of October.
Newcastle upon Tyne University entrants
* ConoStem - Set up by academics at the University's Medical School, ConoStem has developed a way of taking human stem cells from placentas and umbilical cords and growing them into 3d models of human organs for use in drug testing and development, speeding research, leading to safer drugs and avoiding the need for much human and animal testing.
It is hoped the technology ultimately can be developed for growing human organs for transplant.
The work has already attracted national and international attention and ConoStem's Prof Colin McGuckin and Dr Nico Forraz will travel to Rome to address Vatican experts on the ethical implications of their work.
* Topotyne - Academic Professor Caroline Austin has set up this business to make and sell proteins to the pharmaceutical industry for use in drug development and trials, and also to examine and analyse the protein after it has been subjected to various processes.
The company has established a customer base in a niche market and now seeks to develop that.
* Systemlays UK - This business, of law graduate Robin Scott, provides advice for users of internet betting exchanges. It relies on a unique database which has every racehorse statistic available, including information on every race run since 1995, including details of times and distances.
Subscribers have extensive information before placing online bets with each other.
* Supe - History graduate James Surgeon and brother Matthew have developed a bar idea to sell a range of healthy soups and smoothies using only fresh local ingredients without preservatives or additives. They will also sell sandwiches and salads. The pair, who have finance in place, have identified premises for the first of what they hope will be a chain of Supe bars.
Northumbria University entrants
* Zest Innovation - Design for Industry graduates Laura Williams and Nina Belk have set up this service design consultancy, to offer the discipline and techniques of design to businesses to develop their services.
After a successful first year, they are about to move into new premises in North Shields and take on staff.
* Blackhawk Hearse - Owned by Gordon Fitch and Maggie Drysdale, the Northumberland-based firm operates a hearse carriage, pulled by a Harley Davidson trike, for biker and non-biker funerals with a difference.
The service operates over the UK and Gordon is working a six-month contract on a Siberian oil well to raise funds to build another hearse, tailored for Hindu funerals.
* Root Design - The business, which designs and sells felt slip mats for record turntables, was the brainchild of law graduate Rich Phillips.
The market is DJs and the firm is now looking at other products, like record bags. Rich also plans to produce a catalogue for the mats, which sell as far afield as Australia.
* Nzomics - Set up by academics Dr Justin Perry and Prof Gary Black, chemists from the School of Applied Sciences, the business produces biocatalysts for industry.
These can often replace chemical processes in the production of pharmaceuticals with biochemical methods.
Nzomics has proof of concept funding from NStar and has already won one big contract. It plans to open a laboratory with about six employees in the North-East in the next 18 months.
University of Sunderland entrants
* Microbotix - Professor John MacIntyre of the university's Computing and Technology department has developed a six-legged robot with artificial intelligence, which can learn about and adapt to its surroundings.
It can be controlled without cables, using a remote control or WiFi connection. Its applications will be in the fields of inspection, security and recreational markets.
The company has received a DTI research grant and is now looking for investment capital.
* Herbees - Denise McLeary's dream is to set up a social enterprise business to provide training and employment for people with learning difficulties, in producing and retailing fresh-cut herbs.
Denise is looking for funding and for corporate sponsorship to set the business up within the next year and employ three people.
* Juo - Jessamy Kelly and Joanne Mitchell set up their business, operating out of the National Glass Centre where they design fused lifestyle glassware such as glass panels, bowls, platters, placemats and coasters.
They want to see their products within all the high street stores within five years.
University of Teesside entrants
* Little Red Dot Technologies - Engineering graduate Dr Iain Speers and Computing graduate Gary Quinn have developed an IT technology which can quantify human movement in real time.
Among other applications, this will allow the monitoring of an old person's balance via web cam technology, giving information to a doctor or physiotherapist on the person's neurological system.
The system is currently undergoing hospital trials and if funding is secured a company will be formed.
* moShine - This is an animation studio/design agency set up by three graduates - Satish Shewhorak, Michael Siu and Stephen Caie - which creates and sells cutting-edge modern graphics to the broadcast, TV and film and corporate worlds.