For the past six years, the Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy has fostered entrepreneurship through the Lowell Milken Institute–Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs, a business plan competition exclusively for teams of UCLA students, each of which must include one student from the law school. On April 18, 2022, in an event somewhat reminiscent of Shark Tank at the law school, the final round of six presentations were made in front of a live audience and via Zoom.
The institute’s executive director, Joel Feuer, began the event by introducing the three judges for the 2022 awards: Jenny Leung MBA ’18, program director at Techstars Los Angeles and a member of the winning team for the 2018 LMI-Sandler Prize; Moujan Kazerani ’00, founding partner and general counsel at Bryant Stibel; and Richard Sandler ’73, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation and a partner at the law firm Maron & Sandler. After Feuer outlined the basic rules—each team had 10 minutes to present and 8 minutes to answer questions from the judges—the evening got underway.
The team Lost Abroad, which is creating an immersive language- learning experience, went first. Next up was Vesty, a digital incubator designed to facilitate the growth and development of social media influencers’ brands and enable others to invest in the social- media marketing arena. The third presenter was OraFay, which is developing a novel microarray drug delivery system, called Sal-patch, for treating gum disease. The fourth team was Vite.st, another medical device startup, which is creating a reusable COVID-19 sensor that is as easy to use as a breathalyzer and delivers test results in five minutes. SportSwap, the fifth team to present, is creating a more transparent and community-oriented approach to online sports betting. The final team, Kommu, is building a home/apartment sharing network to enable people to travel less expensively.
Each team, ranging from four to six people, used slide decks to make their presentation, with individual team members speaking about the overall vision, competitive differentiation, key metrics (“total addressable market” was obviously important), funding strategies and timelines and potential legal challenges. The level of thought and rigor was impressive, and the presenters were quite professional, even polished; only an occasional nervous jitter reminded the audience that these were young graduate students rather than seasoned entrepreneurs.
Particularly evident was that each team told an effective story, not just about the “what” of their ideas but also the “why” and “how.” It was clear also that these students took the challenge of entrepreneurship seriously.
After a short break for the judges to deliberate, Feuer announced the winners, acknowledging that the decisions were especially difficult this year because “the quality of the presentations—and the ideas for new businesses—were so great”:
- SportSwap received the New Venture Prize for a startup that has not previously won any awards; this was a new award category for the 2022 competition. Daniel Del Giorno JD MBA ’22, Melis Kilic JD MBA ’22, Keaton Lipson MBA ’22 and Justin Moorad MBA ’23 each received $2,500.
- The LMI-Sandler 2nd place prize went to Lost Abroad. Receiving prizes of $2,000 each were team members Jackson Browning MBA ’22, Siyi Chen MBA ’22, Jack Du MBA ’22, Brent Oberlin MBA ’22, Zi Ye ’22 and Beineng Zhang ’23.
- The 1st place prize went to Kommu: Bo Abrams MBA ’22, Darren Douglas MBA ’22, Branden Nikka ’23, Katie Schiff MBA ’22, Gus Woythaler MBA ’22 and Devin Yaeger ’23, each of whom received $4,000.
The LMI-Sandler competition originated with Lowell Milken ’73 and Richard Sandler ’73 and their desire to provide more opportunities for law students to explore entrepreneurship, venture creation, investment and business development. More than 200 law students have participated in the competition since it began in 2016.
“This year’s finalists exhibited the wide range of creative ventures that have become a hallmark of this competition,” said Sandler, who has served as a final-round judge every year since the competition began. “Each year, participating law students tell me how much they have learned from the competition and express their excitement at working with students from the other professional schools and graduate programs on ventures that have the potential to create change. It is powerful for law students to see the bigger picture of how the skills that they are learning at UCLA Law translate into the world of entrepreneurship.”
That was definitely part of the draw for Branden Nikka ’23: “I was curious about entrepreneurship, and the competition was a great way to scratch that itch.” Nikka and Devin Yaeger ’23 were the law school representatives on team Kommu. “Winning the prize was validating,” says Yaeger. “We were able to test our legal knowledge in a business setting rather than a legal one, and to put our skills to practical use.” Yeager is already a serial entrepreneur. “Before law school,” he says, “I started a fairly successful attorney recruiting company. I’m currently working on a renewable energy startup in Africa that has me really excited!”
“The Lowell Milken Institute–Sandler Prize provides a great opportunity for law students to collaborate with students throughout the UCLA campus,” says Feuer, “including the business school and the engineering school. Law students get real-life, hands-on experience with understanding business opportunities and risks. Learning to think like an entrepreneur and to craft and deliver an effective pitch is invaluable.”
Diana Yen ’22, a member of team Vite.st, agrees. “This opportunity has given me an idea of what it is like to be a lawyer and how much there is that I have to learn,” she says. “The structure of having possible real-life implications to my answers also helped me learn more and gave me a greater appreciation for the business side. And I really appreciated this rare opportunity to get to know students in the other schools and work with them in a simulated real-life environment.”
First published in UCLA Law's fall 2022 magazine.