In the cutthroat world of startups, aspiring Penn entrepreneurs are finding unexpected support — both from prestigious competitions and their own peers.
For rising Wharton and Engineering junior Ryan Marschang — whose solar technology startup Invisergy took top prize at a business plan competition at Stanford University last month — the victory provided both funding and connections.
“It helps build a network of people who, once you’re done competing in the competition, you can go to and execute the ideas,” he said.
Hosted by the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students, the competition brought together 100 aspiring entrepreneurs from around the world to present the business strategy for their startups.
Marshang explained that the goal of Invisergy is “creating technologies that allow us to convert ordinary windows and buildings into solar panels.” At the competition, his team presented Invisergy’s method of making existing building materials transparent in order to generate electricity from solar energy.
Previously, Marschang and his team entered the Wharton Business Plan Competition, where they won $10,000 for best undergraduate business plan, and also received thousands of dollars in funding from PennVention’s Innovation Fair, Wharton’s Innovation Fund and the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund.
Other aspiring entrepreneurs noted the difficulty of receiving large grants like these.
“Fundraising is very competitive because there is only a finite number of early stage investors,” said 2012 Wharton graduate Eric Heil. “Trying to access capital, you are basically fighting for dollars.”
However, he added that competitions like these “force student entrepreneurs to refine their business plans … because they require reviews by multiple judges and they can now get an idea of what investors are looking for.”
Megan Mitchell, senior associate director of Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs, said the Wharton Business Plan Competition is geared toward putting students through a structured process rather than solely focusing on winning. “Students use this competition as a way to think through all elements of their business plan so they are prepared for tough questions from investors,” she said.
Wharton Business Plan Competition runner-up Samir Malik, a 2008 Wharton graduate and current Wharton MBA student, believes business plan competitions ultimately help students share ideas and collaborate on their products.
“We help each other out because we know our struggles are shared,” Malik said. “It is the idea of paying it forward.”
Malik is currently working on a startup called 1DocWay that allows doctors to video chat with patients, but he notes that he is not worried that there are other startups working on this idea because “there are millions of doctors and thousands of hospitals.”
Building off their recent success, the Invisergy team — which also includes rising Wharton and Engineering senior John Foye as well as Steve Shimizu and Rshiabh Jain, two PhD students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology — is setting its sights on even bigger competitions in the future, in hopes of partnering with major window companies like Saint-Gobain Glass to develop their product.
“We’re building up from smaller competitions at Penn to larger ones at MIT and Stanford, and now we’re competing on a national scale and on a more realistic basis,” Marschang said, adding that the competitions are “a way to validate our business plan and technology and get our name out there for potential investors.”