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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding the Winning Business Pitch

PALO ALTO, California -- They don't usually teach this in business school: When it comes to launching companies, style can matter as much as substance.

The budding capitalists at Stanford University on Friday held Entrepreneur Idol, a take-off on the Fox TV talent show "American Idol."

Instead of singing tunes by Bon Jovi or Burt Bacharach, 48 students had one minute each to pitch their best business ideas. The winner would land $2,000 in seed money and connections to a top-level venture firm -- but first had to win over the panel of four venture capitalists and one technology blogger.

Stanford has long fed Silicon Valley's start-up factory, with students going on to create such notable companies as Google.

Charles River Ventures, a company with offices in Menlo Park, sponsored the event to embed its name in the brains of the future titans of business.

But the company also wanted to go beyond the traditional business school education -- preparation, financial analysis, market research -- and teach the students something about selling business concepts in the real world.

The students came in, one at a time -- some in sandals and shorts, others in khakis and business suits.

Linus Liang, 25, a first-year graduate student in computer science, held up a diapered baby doll. "What if I could tell you how you can save 4 million babies a year?" he asked. His idea: Create a low-cost incubator that could help infants in developing countries.

Aman Naimat, 23, a computer science graduate student, first pitched a consumer site. He came back a few minutes later to pitch a video piracy idea. "I have no business model," he said. "I just came up with this idea yesterday."

Jeff Piper, 29, a second-year business student, offered software that sifts important e-mail from the rest. "E-mail interruptions reduce people's IQ twice as much as smoking pot," he said.

Rajni Rao, 25, a first-year business student, proposed doing for Indian food what Taco Bell has done for Mexican. "Help me diversify the American palate," said the potential future CEO of Little Taj.

Dan Abelon, 27, a second-year business student, said the problem with online dating was the work required to create and sift through profiles. His solution -- SpeedEDate, an online dating site using video clips and live webcams.

The scores were tallied. SpeedEDate made the cut, as did Little Taj.

The five finalists pitched again. Robert Zhang talked about his idea for a kind of light made with organic material. "It's the biggest breakthrough since Thomas Edison," he said.

Andrew Sypkes, a 30-year-old business student who is hearing impaired, pitched a way to sell hearing aids.

Zachary, channeling both Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, called the pitch "personal and authentic," but then criticized it as "a little flat -- rehearsed."

"I didn't get a sense you would do anything for this business," Zachary said. "I didn't hear: 'This is not an iPod. This is an EarPod!'"

Arrington warned Rao about Little Taj, saying he had lost money investing in a restaurant during his Stanford Law days.

"I'm always wary of Stanford business students pitching restaurants," he said.

"I hope to try it out before it goes out of business."

Liang brought out the doll again for his pitch. CRV partner Saar Gur called the prop "questionable."

But, as with American Idol, the viewers decide.

The crowd of rejected Idol contestants and student spectators clapped and cheered the loudest for Liang, who took home the $2,000 prize.

He just smiled to the audience, then scurried to the judges for more advice.