ORONO, Maine — A year ago, Spencer Wood never thought of himself as an entrepreneur. He was a student in his senior year at the University of Maine. He was on the football team. He knew he liked solving problems and coming up with new and crazy ways to improve seemingly quotidian tasks. But an entrepreneur? Nope.

“I’d be eating dinner and think about how to improve the plate to make it easier for me to eat,” says Wood, now a graduate student at the university. “I’ve always had crazy ideas, but that’s always what it’s been.”

One of Wood’s crazy ideas was the need for a piece of exercise equipment that would be small enough for him to store in his dorm room and portable enough to take with him when the football team played games on the road. On his schoolbooks he sketched what the device might look like. That might have been as far as the idea ever got if it wasn’t for an initiative launched by a small group of alumni to promote entrepreneurship among students.

During the first semester of his senior year, Wood began to see pamphlets around campus advertising something called the UMaine Business Challenge. It was a student business plan competition. The barrier to entry was easy; students with an idea for a business just had to send an email.

Everywhere he’d go, there was another notice asking for students with business ideas to step up.

“Finally, one day, I said, ‘You know what, this must be a sign,’” Wood recalls.

So he sent the email, and it changed his life.

In April, Wood won second place in the UMaine Business Challenge with his “crazy idea.” He received a $1,000 cash prize and some pro bono work by business consultants.

Today, he’s in the process of securing patents on a product that began as school-book marginalia. He calls it the PerFit. A prototype should be complete within a few weeks. Once that’s done, he plans to seek financing to help bring the PerFit to market.

“I want this business to be my life,” Wood, who’s 23 and pursuing a master’s in human development, tells the Bangor Daily News. “I plan on getting my master’s degree, but utilizing the time and flexibility in my schedule to build this company so that when I do graduate in the spring of 2015 I’m hitting the ground running with this thing, and that’s that.”

Perhaps most importantly, if the business does take off, he plans to stay in Maine.

‘We want to keep them here’

The UMaine Business Challenge started as an effort by a small group of University of Maine alumni to give back to their alma mater, but it has blossomed into a statewide competition for student entrepreneurs that some say has the potential to retain more young Mainers.

In 2011, four members of UMaine’s 2010 graduating class launched the competition, ponying up $5,000 of their own cash to give to the student entrepreneur with the best business plan.

The competition has grown since then. The first year, only students at UMaine were eligible to compete. Earlier this year, in the competition in which Wood took second place, it was opened to students at the University of Southern Maine.

For the third annual competition, which is currently ramping up and will conclude in April 2014, students at any of the University of Maine System campuses and Husson University, the first private school to participate, will be eligible to compete for $10,000 in cash and business services.

James Morin, one of the competition’s founders, said he and his co-founders — Owen McCarthy, Matt Ciampi and Sangam Lama — felt “very much indebted” to UMaine and wanted to find a meaningful way to give back. Morin, who’s passionate about entrepreneurship, was surprised that Maine’s flagship university didn’t already have a student business plan competition.

“Instead of writing a check, we wanted to create something of substance, something that could have a longer-lasting effect than maybe $1,000 would,” Morin, who’s an employee at Putney Inc. in Portland, tells the BDN.

Past winners of the UMaine Business Challenge include a woman who used her winnings to develop prototypes for new pet grooming tools and a pair of brothers who plan to launch an aerial photography business using drones as soon as the Federal Aviation Administration approves rules for the unmanned flying vehicles. Tom Myers, a USM mechanical engineering student from Gray, beat out Wood for the $5,000 first-place prize, as well as the $4,000 technology prize from MTI, with his plan to develop and market a proprietary piece of equipment that would chop wood more efficiently than the hydraulic systems already out there.

“We have several cash-flow-positive businesses that have come through the competition in the last two years,” Morin says.

The private and public sectors have been supportive, according to Morin. Past sponsors include Burgess Advertising, University Credit Union, Blackstone Accelerates Growth and the Maine Technology Institute, which, in addition to offering the $5,000 first prize and $1,000 second prize, will provide a $4,000 technology prize to the student entrepreneur with the best idea involving a technological innovation.

While the cash prizes are not huge, Morin said that could change as more sponsors get involved. Some business plan competitions around the country offer as much as $1 million cash prizes.

No matter the current amount of money on the table, Morin and his co-founders are on the right track as far as making a difference.

Student business plan competitions are an essential building block in efforts to grow Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem because they force students to go through the steps of launching a business, according to Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development at USM.

“Entrepreneurship is very much an experiential phenomenon,” says Gooding. “Unless you actually do it, you don’t really know what it’s like. So encouraging students to actually go do something entrepreneurial is essential in training them.”

The UMaine Business Challenge also fills a glaring gap in Maine. The University of Southern Maine held a student business plan competition for many years, but funding constraints forced its elimination after the 2010-11 school year. Colby College launched a business plan competition a few years ago, but it’s open only to Colby students.

Maine has a few business plan competitions not limited to students — namely Gorham Savings Bank’s LaunchPad and the Island Institute’s Island Bizplan Contest — but it’s not enough, Gooding says.

“My own rather grand vision is eventually to have competitions that connect all the way from middle school to LaunchPad … so that you really have ascending levels of sophistication in prizes and statewide visibility,” he says. “It’s great these things are going on, but it’s a small fraction of what it needs to be to have a big impact on entrepreneurship in the state.”

And impact is what Morin and his co-founders, who currently sit on the challenge’s advisory board, want to see. When they launched the challenge, another motivator for them was seeing Maine be labeled by Forbes magazine as the worst state in which to do business (at the time the UMaine Business Challenge launched, it was Maine’s first year in last spot, which it hasn’t given up since), according to Morin.

“We’re not buying it,” he says. “We think there are talented people here. There’s an entrepreneurial hub here. It’s active. It’s growing, and we wanted to help promote it.”

“We’re tired of being a farm team. We’re tired of sending our smart students and smart employees out of state,” he says. “We want to keep them here.”

One condition of the UMaine Business Challenge is that winners receive the cash prizes only if they promise to keep their businesses, if successfully launched, in Maine.

Above all, what the UMaine Business Challenge does is give students the ability to see that being an entrepreneur, taking an idea and building a business from it, is a viable option.

For Wood, participating in the UMaine Business Challenge allowed him to realize that his ideas weren’t so harebrained after all.

“They allowed me to see that my crazy ideas are actually good ideas and I could actually do something with them,” Wood says. “It went from fun and games to ‘You could make a career out of this.’ It excited me more than anything that people were liking what I was talking about.

“So, now I’d label myself as an entrepreneur.”

The 2014 UMaine Business Challenge is in its first stage. Students from any University of Maine campus and Husson University are invited to send an email with their intent to participate to umainebusinesschallenge@gmail.com. Starting Jan. 2, 2014, organizers will reach out to all competitors with a short application asking them to briefly describe their business idea. These “executive summaries” will be used to select finalists who will present live business pitches in front of a panel of judges on April 26, 2014. For more information about how to participate in the 2014 UMaine Business Challenge, to go www.umaine.edu/ubc.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.