Student-run startup companies in technology, dental hygiene and women’s clothing won the top awards in UCLA School of Law’s $100,000 Lowell Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs competition, which concluded its fifth-annual event on April 20.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the semester-long contest shifted from its traditional in-person final gala to virtual platforms, where a panel of distinguished judges evaluated pitch videos that were produced by teams of students from UCLA Law and other schools at UCLA.
With a total of $100,000 at stake, the LMI-Sandler Prize is the largest entrepreneurship competition at any law school in the United States. It is the brainchild of Lowell Milken and Richard Sandler, members of the UCLA Law Class of 1973, who established the competition at the law school’s Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy in 2016. The aim is to foster an atmosphere where UCLA students can bring their ideas to market and where UCLA Law students can gain experience building a company from the ground up.
Working remotely and amid other disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, 18 teams submitted business plans for the 2020 competition. Judges narrowed the contenders to seven finalists who submitted brief videos promoting their products and detailing their business plans. They also wrote short statements that outlined how their ventures would be impacted by the pandemic.
For the first time, the competition presented prizes for the top three teams, in addition to an audience-favorite award that went to the company that received the most votes from the public. Judges chose the winners based on “the entire business concept, looking at overall feasibility, viability, attractiveness to investors and possibilities for growth, as well as the team’s performance in the oral presentation.”
First place and $60,000 was awarded to Sahara, which allows inventors creating physical products to build and test their designs in an online environment. Customers can save substantial costs that are ordinarily lost to trial and error in production, and they can continue to innovate in today’s remote-working environment. Team members include UCLA Law student Elaine Park ’21 and UCLA Anderson School of Management students Andy Chang, Josh Kimmel, Annie Lu and Jama Mohamed.
“While completely remote work is not necessarily the ideal future we envision, virtual product development is a tool that we hope will be helpful in uncertain as well as normal circumstances,” says Park, who worked at a financial technology startup in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying business law with the Lowell Milken Institute.
“Creating something of value with fellow students has been deeply rewarding,” she says. “The interdisciplinary nature of the competition, with a focus on legal’s role, has also been a great platform. Not many pitch competitions that I am aware of emphasize or require a legal role, and it gave me the opportunity to provide value from my professional and academic experiences.”
Wise Earthcare finished in second place and won $25,000. The company seeks to reduce plastic pollution by marketing a line of toothbrushes and other home-dental-care products that are compostable and sustainable. UCLA Law student Scott Panitz ’21 teamed with UCLA Anderson students Andrew Coyle, William Hawkins, Belinda Lau, Pradnya Parulekar and Ingrid Vining.
“The work we produced for the competition has helped us to critically evaluate and improve all the aspects of our business — legal, operations, production, marketing, et cetera — and sharpen and refine our vision,” says Panitz, who founded a tutoring company in the Czech Republic before law school.
OYA Apparel earned the third-place prize of $15,000 and the audience award of $1,000. It designs fashionable leggings that minimize the health problems that are commonly associated with functional sportswear for new mothers and other women. The team includes UCLA Law student Ashley Sykora ’21 and UCLA Anderson students Patrick Ayers, Mitchella Gilbert, Mac Seder and Raylan Vaz.
Amid the pandemic, Sykora headed to Texas and collaborated with teammates who had dispersed to New York and around California. While most of her legal education has been focused on litigation, she says, “to have the opportunity to do hands-on work involving the transactional side was something I really valued.”
Sandler and Milken served as judges for the final round alongside Fenwick & West partner Joshua Geffon ’04 and Victoria Slivkoff, who is the global head of innovation and entrepreneurship at the UC Office of the President. Fenwick & West sponsored the final-round competition, which was overseen by Lowell Milken Institute Executive Director Joel Feuer. He will continue to advise the winners.
Other finalists included Brand Socialite, a staffing platform for event managers and other employers; Protean Surgical Instruments, which is developing a cost-effective catheter; Sike Insights, whose technology uses artificial intelligence to improve the ways that remote teams collaborate; and VHomes, which helps convert distressed real estate properties into budget-travel destinations.