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 – and each team must include one student from the law school. On April 18, 2022, in a “Shark Tank” type event 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, opened 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 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 eight minutes to answer questions from the judges – the evening got underway.
Lost Abroad, which is creating an immersive language learning experience, went first. Next up was Vesty, a digital incubator to facilitate the growth and development of the brands of social media influencers 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 start-up, 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. And the final team was Kommu, which 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 presentations, 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 thinking and rigor was impressive, and the presenters were quite professional, and even polished; only an occasional nervous jitter reminded the audience that these were young graduate students, not seasoned entrepreneurs.
What was particularly evident was that each told an effective story, not just about the “what” of their ideas but also the “why” and “how.” Each team’s presentation can be seen here. And it was clear that these students took the challenge of entrepreneurship seriously.
After a short break for the judges to deliberate, Executive Director 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 – was so great:”
- Team SportSwap received the New Venture Prize for a start-up that has not previously won any awards; this is a new award category for 2022’s 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 Team 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.
- And the 1st place prize went to Team 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 received $4,000.
The genesis of the competition came from Lowell Milken ’73 and Richard Sandler ’73 and their desire to provide more opportunities for law students to explore entrepreneurship, venture creation, investment, and 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 in every Final Round since the competition began in 2016. “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 put our skills to practical use.” Yeager is already a serial entrepreneur: “Before law school I started a fairly successful attorney recruiting company,” he notes. “I am currently working on a renewable energy startup in Africa that has me really excited!”
Both students will work at law firms this summer, but hope to continue providing legal advice to Kommu, which is planning to have its iOS language immersion app ready for market in the next few months. Yaeger says that he will probably use the prize to help a nonprofit he founded in Uganda (“$4,000 will pay for two to three wells in rural communities"); Nikka plans to use the prize to finance a trip after passing the bar.
“The Lowell Milken Institute-Sandler Prize provides a great opportunity for law students to collaborate with students throughout the UCLA campus, including the business school and the engineering school. Law students get real-life, hands-on experience with understanding business opportunities and risks,” says Feuer. “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,” says Yen. “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.”