An idea and a current Penn email address are all it takes to start a business.
The AppItUP Challenge, a Penn Center for Innovation program, is entering its third year of submissions and is open to faculty, staff and students alike. The process is simple: Any business idea involving a mobile application can be submitted by Oct. 12 to a panel of venture capitalists. The best 10 ideas, the semifinalists, are then presented to developers and venture capitalists, and five finalists are selected. The Center for Innovation then helps these finalists turn their apps into full-fledged businesses.
In 2014, a $15,000 grant was awarded to one finalist, Rescufy — a medical application that sends allergy and other information to emergency responders and emergency contacts. Rescufy is set to become publicly available in the next two weeks.
At the end of the 2014-15 cycle, $50,000 went to DecNut, a medical application which streamlines decision-making in healthcare organizations. The money was an investment from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a southeastern Pennsylvania venture capital firm. This year, Ben Franklin Technology Partners will double their investment offers, offering $50,000 each to two companies.
Still, all finalists are built into companies — they just need capital. Vifant LLC, another finalist from last year, recently found funding. “We still have a long way to go,” said 2001 Wharton graduate and CEO of Vifant Beth Desouza, but “the app has a tremendous value.”
DeSouza said that the process of getting funding can be difficult, and no development occurs until funding is secured. Those involved in the business are paid no salary, instead receiving equity in the company. Five months after a product presentation in April, Vifant received funding and began development. DeSouza predicts that the app, which allows healthcare providers to identify vision impairment in patients as young as two months old, will be in the process of getting FDA approval in about a year.
Most finalists so far have been medical application ideas, but Karina Sotnik, who developed the AppItUP challenge, says that this year there will be a “more diverse group.” This is in large part due to venture capital groups new to the challenge this year, with different focuses.
While Sotnik said that she’d like to see more “consumer-facing products,” she added that she was disappointed by how many ideas are lacking in real “social impact.” Many of these underwhelming “dating or drinking apps,” Sotnik notes, come from Wharton. Wharton’s 166 submissions accounted for more than a third of last year’s 427 total, but only one semifinalist and no finalist ideas came from Wharton.
Regardless of school or position at Penn, however, Sotnik is looking for the next great business idea. “We’re not interested in building apps,” she said. “We’re interested in building businesses.”
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