The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School may be known for churning out investment bankers and finance professionals, but the second annual Penn Wharton Startup Showcase on Friday (April 27) proved there is a thriving startup scene inside the school as well.
An entrepreneurship competition that started in January came to a close last week with a culminating event showcasing eight finalists who survived multiple rounds of judging and outlasted hundreds of students who took part in the Shark Tank-style event.
The top prize of $30,000 plus $15,000 in in-kind business services was presented to startup Sanguis, whose eponymous device was pitched as a personalized chemotherapy companion that reduces infections from chemotherapy side effects. The at-home, easy-to-use device monitors neutrophil counts inside a person’s cells and alerts patients if their counts are dangerously low.
BIG CROWD WELCOMES 8 TEAMS
It was a packed house inside a Huntsman Hall auditorium as eight teams filed in one after the other to present their startup ideas to an esteemed panel of Penn alumni judges. As each team presented, two themes quickly emerged: problem solving and disruption.
Katherine Sizov, Penn undergraduate student in the College of Arts & Sciences and CEO of Strella Biotechnology — a biotech startup that uses sensors to predict fruit ripeness and help reduce food spoilage and waste — described the current supply chain for fruit this way: “This industry is ‘ripe’ for disruption.”
The Strella team was a crowd favorite in the showcase, walking away with three prizes totaling $15,000, one of them being a social impact prize for $10,000.
EVENT DRAWS CROSS-DISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION AMONG STUDENTS
Students participating in the competition came from all majors and disciplines across the university and ranged from undergrad and grad students to MBAs and Ph.D.s, a welcome trend for event organizers who say they are delighted by the cross-disciplinary, multi-level collaboration taking place.
Karl Ulrich, Wharton’s vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation, told Poets&Quants he attributes this in part to a rebranding that took place two years ago. “Instead of calling it the Wharton Business Plan Competition, it’s the Penn Wharton Startup Showcase, so we emphasized Penn and the university. I am pleased with the level of cross-university participation.
“Wharton had, for 18 years, run a business plan competition. The new name represents a repositioning of that long tradition. We wanted to emphasize that creating a new business is a process. That’s why we’ve called the process the Penn Wharton Startup Challenge, and then this event the Penn Wharton Startup Showcase.”
ARE YOU A DISRUPTOR?
The six-member judging panel didn’t hold back, drilling students on their process and pressing them for explanations about the risks involved with their companies, plans to reduce said risks, long versus short sales cycles, marketing strategies, and who or what industries stood to be disrupted by their proposed startups.
For their part, the student teams appeared unrattled by the tough questions, leaving judges with an equally tough task to identify first-, second-, and third-place winners.
One judge, David Cohen, a four-time Penn alumni parent and CEO of Karlin Asset Management Inc., described it this way: “I had two thoughts listening to these presentations. The first is, each one was so well done with so much thought put into each idea and presentation. It was a really tough job. In 12 years I’ve been judging this competition, this is the most impressive class of finalists I can remember. My second thought was, I’m very grateful I’m not a student. There is some really great competition.”
AWARDS FOR MOST PROMISING SOCIAL IMPACT, INNOVATION, MORE
In the end, the second-place prize of $15,000 was awarded to MD Ally, an emergency telehealth company seeking to reduce the use of 9-1-1 and ER resources for non-emergency issues; and the third-place prize of $10,000 went to Avisi Technologies, which makes a nanoscale drainage implant for the eye to help fight glaucoma. Each of the three winning teams also earned an additional $15,000 in legal, accounting, and business strategy services.
Awards were also given for most promising social impact, people’s choice, innovation, and the top team of majority undergraduate students.
Prior to the eight finalist presentations, the Penn Wharton Startup Showcase involved a gallery of 27 semi-finalists gathered inside Wharton’s iconic Baker Forum. There were elevator pitches — inside actual elevators — as the school showcased a bustling community of innovation and entrepreneurship. School officials say event attendees each year include students and faculty as well as actual venture investors and backers looking to keep abreast of potential opportunities.
‘IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP, THIS IS A GREAT PLACE’
To this end, Vice Dean Ulrich says the event shows Wharton is more than just a place for future bankers. While the school is proud of its strengths in that area, the perception of Wharton as a finance school actually hasn’t been true for a long time, he says.
“To give you an example, in the Wharton undergraduate class last year, less than 50% went into financial services. Ten years ago it was higher — it may have been as high as 70% — but it’s under 50% now,” Ulrich says. “So the reality is that Wharton is very much a finance and ‘other things’ school and that’s been true for some time.
“Our message is, if you’re interested in entrepreneurship, Wharton’s a great place. There are tremendous resources, not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of this vast mentoring network because of just how big and accomplished our entrepreneurial alumni are.”