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Romanian Student Leverages Burrill Competition to Accomplish Her Dream

MADISON - The instant Anca Copaescu, then a second-year MBA in the University of Wisconsin's School of Business, heard about the 2001 G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition, she knew she wanted to enter. It wasn't just the prospect of winning $10,000 - though the money definitely got her attention. It was the sudden realization that this was a chance to fulfill one of her deepest dreams. "Even as a child growing up in Romania, I always wanted to be in a real business," Copaescu reflects. "This was an opportunity to start something."

Though she was convinced that the business plan competition was exactly the right vehicle for starting a real business, Copaescu still needed to come up with a real business idea for the competition. So, after registering her "team" in November of 2000, she began recruiting individuals who might bring with them a compelling business concept. She first enlisted the help of her friend, Florentina Popovici, a fellow Romanian working on a PhD in Computer Science. The pair considered all sorts of ideas, including internet auctions and image enhancing software. They even scanned the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation's (WARF's) website for possibilities. But nothing appealed to them.

After hours of unfruitful brainstorming, they caught a break. While venting her frustrations in a phone conversation with a friend in the College of Engineering, Copaescu learned of his experiments with a technology designed to increase the speed of transmission in optical fibers. This technology sounded viable, so she wasted no time in convincing him to join team Romania. For the next few months, everything seemed to be going smoothly. Then, near the end of February 2001, the engineering student unexpectedly removed himself (and his technology) from the team, stating that the emerging business plan was revealing too much of his proprietary technology. Devastated, Copaescu and Popovici started over and began looking for another concept.

Just two weeks before the competition, Copaescu happened upon a magazine article featuring Bob Goodman and Jo Handelsman, UW-Madison plant pathologists, who had recently discovered some new antibiotics in soil samples. Copaescu excitedly e-mailed Goodman. Five minutes later, he emailed her back.

Neither Handelsman nor Goodman was interested in starting a business. Yet they patiently explained their method for extracting large sections of DNA from soil micro organisms, and agreed to let Copaescu and Popovici write a business plan - as a purely academic exercise. Thus began the painful process of creating a real business. The two would-be entrepreneurs now had exactly two weeks to learn the technology - the biology, equipment, and procedures - and develop a business model. In short, they had to figure out how to sell the incredible data generated by their platform technology without selling the platform itself. Amazingly, they succeeded. Copaescu and Popovici not only crafted a compelling plan for their hypothetical company, Metagenomics, but also won the $10,000 top price in the Burrill competition.
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After the competition, Popovici went back to her pursuit of a career in academia. Copaescu, on the other hand, could not stop dreaming about this company. Though she landed a job as a financial analyst with Pittsburgh Paint & Glass, she used all of her vacation time and most of her weekends traveling between Pittsburgh and Madison trying to make Metagenomics into a real business. She just had to find a way to get the two inventors on board. As Copaescu says, "I was attracted to biotechnology, not making paint." Slowly, Goodman's reticence melted away. With an early-planning grant from the Department of Commerce, he and Copaescu improved their market research and developed a website. In May 2002, the two presented their business idea to venture capitalists at the Milwaukee BioTech Fair.

With Goodman on the team, Copaescu relocated to Madison (her position at PP&G ended the day before the fair began) and began working full-time to launch eMetagen(the new name for Metagenomics). They partnered with TechStar, a Milwaukee management services and investment firm, and received much appreciated help in positioning themselves for early stage financing. They also applied for a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an antibiotic that could combat biological weapons. Finally, Copaescu and Goodman began working with WARF to gain licensing rights to the Handelsman/Goodman technology.

Copaescu expects to hear back from NIH about the grant, and receive $250,000 to $500,000 in seed funding within the next few months. She and Goodman are also looking for a talented CEO. Is that when eMetagen will be considered a real business? For entrepreneurs like Copaescu, it's a moot point - new ventures are real long before anyone else can see them at all.

For more information about the eMetagen, visit the company's website at: .

For more information about the Burrill Competition, the UW School of Business, the Erdman Center for Manufacturing and Technology Management, or the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship, go to: , , , or .

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