Most days, Bryan Saftler ’08 looked much like any other student, shuttling between classes in Todd Hall, taking notes, water bottle close at hand. But away from campus, the outgoing Seattle native was a budding businessman, supplying his Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and the rest of the WSU Greek system with custom apparel, everything from triple-thread-count lettered sweatshirts to weekly date dash tee-shirts. His company, Free Inke, set up operations in the basement of Saftler’s house on Campus Street; he and his partners worked before class, after class, and in-between to fill the ever-growing number of orders.

Despite his local success, Saftler knew he had a lot to learn. He’d chosen to attend WSU specifically for the entrepreneurship major and the hands-on opportunities the business program provided. His sophomore year, they entered Free Inke in the university’s business plan competition, but didn’t advance past the first round. “As an undergrad,” he recalls, “I had no knowledge of actual business practices.”

In his senior year, however, everything clicked. “I would learn a process or tool in class one day, then go and immediately apply it in my business and to the business plan with my team the next.” The team included Ali Arian ’08, Chris Henry ’08, and Jeremy Cross ’08. They expanded the enterprise model to serve the entire university community and signed up for the competition once again.

Now in its eighth year, the WSU business plan competition has grown into a robust, two-stage, multi-category competition offering more than $100,000 in prize money. It’s a fitting tribute to the passionate alumnus whose gift was instrumental in starting the program.

In the 1970s, Jim Huber (’66, ’70 MBA) fashioned a successful business out of the basic need for clean clothes: His ATCON Services company provided and maintained washers and dryers for the numerous apartment complexes springing up around Seattle. He visited campus often, volunteered with the College of Business advisory council, and was an early member of the WSU Foundation Board of Trustees.

Huber and five others were on their way to Pullman for the 1992 Apple Cup when the twin-engine airplane he was piloting iced up over the Cascades and crashed. Everyone on board was killed: Huber, his wife, their two teenage sons, and friends Jerry ’66 and Kris Schei.

Huber was a seasoned pilot, an avid yachtsman, and a savvy entrepreneur; ATCON was only one of many business investments over the years. Friends described him as having a knack for putting deals together. The Hubers’ will provided that should there be no heirs, a portion of the estate assets would go to Washington State University and other nonprofit organizations. The Huber estate provided $2.8 million to WSU, with more than $1.2 million earmarked for the College of Business. Rom Markin, dean of the college at the time, used the funds to create the Huber Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, several named scholarships, and the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which in turn launched the Business Plan Competition in 2004.

“There was a whole team of people who recognized that entrepreneurship was something that needed to happen all across the campus,” says Len Jessup, director of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Systems* and former dean of the business college. At the undergraduate level, business and engineering combined resources three years ago to offer Entrepreneurship 490, a year-long, cross-taught project class in which students work in teams to identify a technology, build a prototype, and then write a business plan around the concept. Ideas run the gamut, from an inch-long USB-to-USB transfer device to the vending machine-sized EcoWell kiosk (see “Digging the new EcoWell“).

At the graduate level, all MBA students are required to write a business plan as their capstone project; those enrolled at the Pullman campus must also enter that plan in the competition. A step up from the undergraduate initiative, Jessup encourages them to seek out more advanced, patented technology not only at WSU, but at other universities and across the private sector as well. Jason Burt’s (’07, ’10 MBA) search led him and his team to QVET™, a rapid diagnostic technology for veterinarians similar to a home pregnancy test and developed at the University of Idaho. “One major factor was how close to market the product was,” said Burt via email. “While everyone thinks they have a great idea, if you really look at the market, there are at least ten other people working on something similar.” These sophisticated business plans are much more difficult to write, but offer the very real possibilities of scalable products and enormous markets, which in turn attract investors.

The WSU competition extends well beyond Pullman. All undergraduate team members must be Cougars, but they may be enrolled at any campus, including WSU Online. The top teams from concurrent competitions at the WSU business centers in Switzerland and China participate in the Pullman event each year, and up to half of each graduate-level team may include students from other universities. There are also two non-student categories: an open community league sponsored by the Port of Whitman County and a league for high school students.

Last April, more than 70 volunteer judges trekked to Pullman from all over the West Coast for the two-day competition—venture capitalists, angel investors, business owners, corporate executives, bankers, lawyers, accountants, even those habitual entrepreneurs looking for their next gig amongst the 52 entries. Jessup believes the experience of the judges and their willingness to spend their own money to attend is proof of the quality of the competition.

Free Inke won the 2008 undergraduate division and went on to turn a respectable profit before closing in 2009 so that team members could move on to other opportunities. Saftler, now a product manager for Microsoft in London, uses his entrepreneurial skills every day. “The business course material and knowledge has stuck with me so much more because I got a chance to learn and use.”

The QVET™ technology is in the first stages of product development at BioTracking, a Moscow, Idaho, company. Meanwhile, Burt has caught the entrepreneurial bug and is working full-time on developing Uaddoo, a social media gift registry.

On the web

WSU Business plan competition

*The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Department of Information Systems recently combined to form the Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Systems.