The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Penn's Venture Lab is located in Tangen Hall at 115 South 40th Street. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Penn’s annual Startup Challenge took place on April 12 at Tangen Hall, with eight teams of student entrepreneurs who competed for the top prize of $50,000.

At the Venture Lab Startup Challenge finals, teams pitched their company ideas live before an audience and panel of alumni judges, competing for over $150,000 in cash prizes and other resources. Nirby, a soil analytics tool to help the farming industry save on fertilizing expenses, won the Perlman Grand Prize of $50,000 and $30,000 in additional prizes. 

Nirby uses artificial intelligence to provide farmers with soil results while allowing them to estimate how much fertilizer to use to effectively cut down expenses. The idea was created by Wharton and Engineering junior Piotr Lazarek, who said that over 200 farmers are currently using the technology in Lazarek's home country of Poland.  

"Participating in the Startup Challenge was far more than just another pitch competition," Lazarek said. "It offered me the incredible opportunity to engage with fellow visionary founders, admire their groundbreaking projects, and absorb invaluable insights from the industry experts at Venture Lab."

Some teams have been building the product and image for their startups since their first year at Penn, such as Jochi — an educational tool for neurodiverse students created by Engineering senior Yash Dhir. Other teams formed more recently. For example, the first-year team LilyLoop recently won the 2024 Y-Prize competition for their product line of “smart” period products. 

Audience member Edward Sun, a College and Wharton first-year in the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management Program, said that he felt inspired after seeing the competition. 

"Entrepreneurship doesn't discriminate on age. There’s a lot more that I believe you can control within your own hands and really kind of create your own destiny through entrepreneurship," Sun said. 

The 2024 runner-up Odyssey Notebooks, spearheaded by Wharton graduate student Rainbow Yeung, won the William G. Simpson and R. Drew Kistler Startup Challenge Award of $25,000. The startup integrates creative stationery designs with sustainable materials.

Other teams that received prizes included the healthcare fraud detection tool Robin, the digital game world startup Jalan Journey, and the medical image sharing platform MediMint.

Audience member Vipasha Soni, an Engineering master's student, was impressed by the finalists' range of creative ideas and the Venture Lab's strong community.

"There are so many people and so many resources here who are willing to give all of this help and like feedback for free, and they're willing to help you build your business from the ground up,” Soni said. 

The Startup Challenge began almost two decades ago, according to Head Director of Venture Lab Trang Pham. She said that she recognizes the gendered nature of entrepreneurship and hopes that Venture Lab can be a platform to uplift and support female founders.  

“This is a really known issue in the business world," Pham said. "And it's like, it's not an outright bias against women, but it's a much more subtle one that shifts whether somebody invests in them or not.”

Pham said as her time continues with this program, she hopes to see all of Penn schools and diverse backgrounds represented in the challenge. 

“Sometimes a Wharton business-minded person may want somebody with engineering skills or they might need somebody with great design skills," Pham said. "You don't want a co-founder who is exactly like you. You want a co-founder to help enhance your thinking."