Shark Tank fans at Penn can now watch the drama unfold on their own campus.
AppItUP, a competition run by the Penn Center for Innovation, challenges anyone with a Penn email and a big idea to build a business. After the first pitch session in November, the six finalists from a pool of over 300 applicants are readying prototypes and pitches for a Shark Tank-style pool of investors.
The competition has a September-to-April timeline. During the first four weeks, applicants can submit ideas online, which are then considered by a team of investors and developers. The review board ranks the ideas and selects a group of 10 semi-finalists, who then pitch their ideas at a public forum in November. At the forum, developers bid over the chance to develop a prototype of their favorite ideas. After the finalists are chosen and matched with developers at the forum, they start to form their company, product and business strategy to pitch in April in front of venture capitalists.
This year, investors have pledged to provide a total $100,000 to two different companies in April — an increase from $50,000 and just one company last year.
Assistant Director of PCI Ventures Karina Sotnik masterminded the contest. After coming to PCI, she wanted to find a way to tap into the pool of knowledge among the university body to create positive change.
“We started to think about how we can make a bigger impact on the University and not just do it every time someone has an idea — but actually motivate the entire University to generate mobile app ideas,” Sotnik said.
This was how AppItUP was born.
However, she faced challenges. There weren’t any similar ventures at other universities so PCI had to work from scratch. Most ideas were heavily skewed to the life sciences in the beginning, and PCI wanted to encourage a wide variety of pitches from more than one field.
This year, which is AppItUP’s third iteration, has seen more diversity in ideas than ever. The projects of the six finalists range in topic from health sciences to sociology.
One finalist, Wharton MBA student Alan Holden, said that the competition allowed him to use the theoretical knowledge from classes and apply it in a real world situation. Holden’s invention BeyondBars gives former prisoners an organized way to keep track of their actions, encouraging pro-social behavior. Holden said Karina and the PCI team were very supportive and provided useful insight in helping an idea become a business.
As part of the competition, contestants can register as “upstart,” where they choose not to be CEOs of the company and would like assistance in finding a board team to help grow the company or “app advisors” where they choose to lead on their own but still receive support from PCI.
Beth DeSouza is one of the CEOs recruited by PCI to take the helm of a company called Vifant, a startup from the second AppItUP challenge that helps detect vision problems in children under five years of age and will launch its app this year. Most children don’t receive vision screening until they start school, which can negatively affect development because of the importance of vision in identifying the surrounding world.
DeSouza was recruited by PCI after a rigorous screening process and still maintains close contact with the creator of the idea, working with him to maintain his vision for the company. Her experience is emblematic of PCI’s commitment to forming entire businesses from a single idea.
“We’re not interested in building apps,” Sotnik said. “We’re interested in building companies.”
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