Newly-minted college graduates are emerging from their universities in one of the toughest job markets of all time. Having a degree in hand is proving to be little solace for students with no job opportunities - particularly when the average student debt load sits at more than $23,000. But some schools are giving their entrepreneurial students a serious advantage through business plan competitions. (Save thousands of dollars on tuition with the tricks and little-known programs found in Pay For College Without Selling A Kidney.)
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Business plan competitions give students the opportunity to compete against each other for the chance to win real world seed money for their nascent companies. But more importantly, they provide unique resume-builders for up and coming business leaders.

It's no secret that some of the biggest, most innovative businesses got their start at leading universities around the country. Microsoft and Facebook got their starts on Harvard's campus. Google was the brainchild of Stanford students Sergey Brin and Larry Page - and the topic stemming from a PhD research project. And FedEx was formed after founder Frederick Smith wrote a term paper on the idea of expedited shipping (his professor gave him a C; he thought the idea wasn't commercially viable).

When it comes to successful business plan competition winners, the key is to look at the business schools hosting the competitions. That's because winning business models don't always make it to market. Participants from major schools often get offers from major companies that are interested in the innovation that entrepreneurial students can offer. (Many people want to start a business, but not everyone has what it takes to succeed. Find out where you stand, in Are You An Entrepreneur?)

Follow the Best Business Schools
So, which business plans are worth watching? Here's a rundown of some of the most recent winners from a handful of top business schools.

  • Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest
    Harvard Business School is gearing up for its annual business plan contest, which culminates next week with its finals and awards ceremony. The highly competitive business plan contest focuses on two tracks: the business venture track and the social venture track. First prize winners from each group get $25,000 in startup cash and $25,000 in accounting and legal services.

    In 2009, second year MBA students Matthew Prince and Michelle Zatlyn took top honors in the business venture track with CloudFlare, an internet security business that caters to small sites concerned about online attacks. In the social venture track, first prize went to EGG-Tech, a tech startup that wants to provide battery charging and swapping services to rural Tanzania. The team was made up of Emmanuel Cassimatis, Alla Jezmir, Benjamin Lambert, Jamie Yang, Jukka Valimaki and Blandine Antoine - grad students from Harvard and MIT. (If you can learn to juggle course work and cash flow, you'll be ready for anything. Read Top 5 Incentives For Student Startups.)

  • Yale Entrepreneurial Society Challenges
    Yale's student-run entrepreneurial society, YES, is an undergraduate-run nonprofit corporation that organizes the annual $50,000 Y50K business plan competition. Last year's winners were Arun Gupta, Greg Nemeth, Robert Stickgold, who took the grand prize with their WakeSmart idea – "a cell phone application that monitor's the user's sleep cycles using a Bluetooth wristband accessory to wake the user at the optimal time…" (Historically, Ivy League endowments have had a successful investment strategy. Will it work for you? Find out, in Profitable Investing, Ivy League Style.)

  • Wharton Business Plan Competition
    The university-run business plan competition at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School is a seven-month long program designed to take student entrepreneurs from business concept to product launch. The program awards $30,000 to its annual winner.

    Last year's winning team was NIR Diagnostics, made up of Pitamber Devgon, Xiaoming Fang, Bosun Hau, Armen Karamanian. The students' company manufactures a medical device that uses infrared light to predict how wounds are healing. The technology was developed by a team at Drexel University, but NIR diagnostics is backing the device, according the Daily Pennsylvanian. (Quit your job, be your own boss and earn a paycheck. Find out what to do to make it happen, in Start Your Own Small Business.)

The Predictive Power of Early Success
Scores of other top-notch universities also offer business plan competitions to students, but the predictive power of these early successes can be hard to tell. After all, Ivy League educations don't dominate the resumes of Fortune 50 CEOs. Still, these elite students are likely to make big moves in the coming years - keep an eye out for them.

Don't miss what's happening this week in the financial world. Check out Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Bank Fraud And Financial Eruptions.

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