Five very different teams, each with its own idea for a new company, gathered for the third and final phase of the Duke Startup Challenge Saturday, with SunDance Genetics emerging victorious and $50,000 richer after a day full of presentations and exhibitions.

The awards ceremony, at Duke’s Fuqua Business School, drew about 100 people…mostly students…for a lively event, including team presentations, question and answer sessions and keynote speaker Vivek Wadhwa, chief executive officer of Relativity Technologies. As Wadhwa pointed out, the Startup Challenge is about fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship at Duke, which it is not known for as much as, say, N.C. State University.

“Duke is not famous for churning out entrepreneurs,” Wadhwa told the crowd at the third annual event. “There are a lot of great ideas at Duke. You have everything necessary except this resource to encourage entrepreneurship. A lot of good can com from it.”

SunDance Genetics learned that first hand. The team, composed of all undergraduate students and led by a professor, hopes to move ahead quickly with its proprietary platform technology to transfer beneficial genes for insect resistance from gamagrass to corn. Gamagrass is a wild relative of corn that is naturally resistant to rootworm, which can reduce crop yield by as much as 50 percent.

Chuck Eesley, a student who spoke on behalf of SunDance, said the company should have its first product in three to four years, requiring $4 million to reach commercialization. Eesley said SunDance expects to have a revenue stream of $60 million plus by 2008 and hopes to eventually go public, with an expected return of 200 percent.

The president of SunDance Genetics is Mary Eubanks, a senior research scientist in the biology department at Duke who founded the company in 1988. Since then, it has remained a one-person operation and been funded by the National Science Foundation. Eubanks wants to continue research and does not aspire to become an entrepreneur, so the Startup Challenge team provided her with an outlet.

“I want to congratulate this team of undergraduates,” Eubanks said. “They are so hard working and really dedicated to excellence. It was thrilling to be a part of this team.”

Other teams awarded for business, social ideas

In addition to SunDance, two other teams walked away with sizable chunks of cash. The funding comes from Garry Snook, chairman and CEO of Performance Inc. in Chapel Hill, and other sources at Duke University.

TheraNova, a biomedical device company, was named first runner up ($20,000) and “People’s Choice” winner ($5,000), as selected by those in attendance. TheraNova has developed a patented technology for a medical device designed to deliver so-called ElectroMagnetic Induction Therapy for treatment at home of such common ailments as arthritis and muscle atrophy. Spokesman Dan Burnett said current treatment requires a technician in a clinic, so his team’s product will allow patients to treat themselves with a personal device, priced between $2,000 and $3,000.

Visual Data Systems (VDS) was the second-runner up ($20,000) for its “next generation data analysis,” as one team member describes it. Its software generates “intelligent images” by embedding entire data sets in the graphics themselves, so that “the graphic is the data.”

The other two of the five finalists each received $1,000. They are Alchemy, which helps employees protect stock options against future drops, and Peregrine PowerKraft, which seeks to create more efficient and safe power sport equipment through fuel cells and wireless speed governors.

Two other teams were recognized for their contributions to social entrepreneurship, or sustainable business ventures addressing social needs. The first runner-up was the America China Exchange Society, which is helping to establish and operate a chain of English language centers across major cities in China.

The winner of the social entrepreneurship track was Tahirih Language Services (TLS), which is helping immigrant and refugee women in the Washington DC area by training them as interpreters. Spokeswoman Joy Howard says the company, which is funded through donations and grants, hopes to be profitable in three years. By year five, TLS expects to generate $1.4 million and have helped more than 100 women in 10 different languages.

Greg Dees, a business professor at Duke, said social entrepreneurship is part of a growing trend in business: “The opportunity to create value comes not only economically, but socially as well. A major trend in social entrepreneurship is that it builds a bridge in search for a solution to a social problem, driving people to use a business approach to come up with creative, innovative solutions to social problems.”

Wadhwa: Now’s a good time, but most companies will fail

In his keynote address, Wadhwa informally addressed the mostly younger crowd of prospective startups. He told them now was a great time build a company, but not to depend too much on venture funding too early, as was the case just a few years ago with the “dot com” bust. And Wadhwa is speaking from experience, with Relativity in the midst of its own financial problems right now. Wadhwa also has been one of the region’s most outspoken critics of venture capitalists.

“This is one of the few instances in history of an opportunity for wealth,” he said. “Several years ago during the dot com revolution, those were the days the venture capitalists were kings. The bad news is that those days won’t come back for a decade. In the dot com days, the excess and greed won out over reality. Those days are over now. Almost none of you will get funding this year…the odds are against you.”

One seemingly perplexed student posed a question to Wadhwa: “If the VC bubble has burst, then why is now the time to start a business?”

Wadhwa said the idea and execution are what’s important, with the funding coming later.

“If you believe in it, go and do it; don’t wait for someone to give you money,” he said. “Build it and then sell it and then start executing like crazy. That’s the way it is. Realize the world has changed and adapt to it.”

Another audience member, Kirsten Sachwitz, who’s had some venture capital experience of her own, made another suggestion to the startup teams seeking funding.

“I’ve worked for two VC firms in London,” Sachwitz said, “and I’d suggest taking all that effort (of seeking funding) and put it into getting your first customer and get your money from that.”

Wadhwa concurred, saying: “Then the VCs will be all over you…that’s the way to do it.”

One of his most resonating comments came when Wadhwa told the wide-eyed startups that almost 90 percent of all companies failed, saying, “Get used to the word ‘failure,’ but don’t let it bring you down.”

The warning seems to have stuck the young entrepreneurs, bringing out the drive and determination in them that it takes to start a company.

“We want to keep investors happy and satisfy customers’ needs,” said a young team member from VDS. “Then, hopefully, we’ll be in that 10 percent of successful companies.”

Rudy Gopalakrishnan, a member of the winning SunDance Genetics team, put it this way: “$50,000 is a lot of money. But the thing is, with 90 percent of companies failing, we want to try to break that barrier.”

Duke Startup Challenge: www.dukestartupchallenge.org