LaunchU: Oberlin’s Competition for Entrepreneurs

Learn what it takes to grow an idea into a sustainable business, non-profit or social enterprise that can change people’s lives.

A student presenter at the podium.
Twine, a venture developed by a team of 3 third-year students, won first prize and $15,000 in funding in the 2020 competition.
Photo credit: Jack Lichtenstein '23

Competition Overview

Over winter term you will gain powerful tools and skills that enable you to see opportunity, marshal necessary resources, build your action plan and execute for success. Whether you want to start your own enterprise or you just want to experience what it takes to think through a problem and develop a sustainable action-plan, you will work hard and have fun learning how to “change the world” – for good. All LaunchU participants are invited to pitch for startup up funding. In 2019, three ventures were awarded a total of $40,000. Seven additional ventures were awarded honorable mention and from $500 - $1,000.  

The program is free to all accepted. However, any participant coming to the Bootcamp from off campus is responsible for their travel, accommodations and meals.

How to Participate

Who should apply? Anyone in the Oberlin Family with an idea – first-year to fifth-year students, alumni, staff, faculty, fellows, Obie parents.

Teams are encouraged. While not necessary, we encourage you to look for a teammate to work with you on your venture. They may not necessarily have interest in taking it forward but having a second set of thoughts and input along with added help with the research is very valuable. Additionally, the partner gains skills they will be able to use whether starting a venture or managing projects for an employer. Your teammate does not need to an Oberlin student or alum.

All applications are evaluated by a panel of judges who are looking for participants who can communicate their idea with clarity including an explanation of what problem it solves and how they think they will make money. Much of this may change as you go through the Bootcamp…but showing your thought process demonstrates your ability to effectively participate in the program.

Before starting your application have the following prepared. You will not be able to save and return to the form.

  • Primary contact and team members
  • Short essays
    • What are people forced to do now because what you plan to make doesn’t exist yet?
    • What is your new venture going to build?
    • How will you make money?
    • Why would your venture be hard for someone else to duplicate?
  • Short video pitch of your idea – what it is, who it is for, why it is needed and how you make money. (Cell phone videos are okay.)

During the pre-bootcamp you will be given a number of videos, a short book on lean startups, and a few articles. These materials will prepare you for the tools we will be using during the formal bootcamp and for the rigors of the overall program.

In the past, 20 to 24 ventures were chosen to participate. Some were teams of two or more, some were single founders. Some of the ventures are at the very beginning idea stage, others may have developed a prototype or even have a proof of concept with preliminary revenue. No matter, each of the startup participants will work from where they are and get catapulted forward with the knowledge and structural foundation to launch a successful enterprise.

Some have called it a mini-MBA. There will be hands-on activities through the Business Canvas Model to flesh out all the elements of the venture. Primary and secondary research instills insights in the customer, competitors, supplier and market. Accounting and forecasting skills prepare the entrepreneurs to plan for costs and fund raising. The program includes sessions by specialists in areas of startup marketing, startup forecasting, branding, legal formation, intellectual property (patents, copyright, trademarks etc), angel and non-dilutive funding, nonprofit funding, team development/HR, pitch coaches, and so much more!  All this in 12 jam-packed days.

On day one you will meet our entrepreneurship mentors (alumni or Obie parent). These mentors will work with you remotely to help you refine your business model, challenge your assumption and assist in perfecting your pitch.

In February, any venture interested in competing for funds can pitch to a group of alumni-judges in our first-round pitch competition. Finalists will then go to the final pitch competition in March.  We do not specify a specific amount of funds to be granted until the judges have seen all the contestants. The judges determine who to be awarded startup funds based on how ready they are to move forward. The amount awarded is based on the venture’s next stage need and readiness to proceed.