This year’s Wharton Business Plan Competition (BPC) featured a number of “better, faster, cheaper” ways to complete tasks by moving processes online, including hunting for an apartment, buying an annuity and figuring out which colleges to apply to. Of course, not every entry fit that exact model: There were also plans focused on the use of drones for surveying oil and gas pipelines, screening tests for serious eye disease and ways to perfect the fine art of sandwich-making.
Competing for more than $120,000 (the largest amount to date) in combined cash prizes and in-kind legal and accounting services, the eight finalists presented their pitches on May 1 to a panel of judges and an audience of venture capitalists, business leaders, faculty and students. The competition is open to any student of the University of Pennsylvania (in fact, at this year’s competition, nine different Penn schools were represented) and is managed by the Wharton Entrepreneurship program.
This year’s BPC saw a record number of entries: 181 submissions from more than 490 participants. Over the course of the academic year, 200 judges narrowed down the entries to 25 semifinalists and then to eight, who competed in the “Great Eight” Venture Finals. The judges for the finals competition hailed from Karlin Asset Management, Bay City Capital, Catterton Partners, ExamWorks Group and J. Moore Partners. After hearing the finalists’ 10-minute pitches, the judges had a chance to ask questions about issues such as return on investment, market size, value proposition, budgets and timelines.
The team judged to have the most viable business plan was named the grand prize winner, receiving the $30,000 Michelson Grand Prize, plus $15,000 in legal and accounting services. The second-place winner received $15,000 in cash and $15,000 in legal and accounting services, and the third-place winner received $10,000 in cash and $15,000 in legal and accounting services. A People’s Choice Award of $3,000 was also presented, with the winner determined by audience members’ votes.
New this year was the Wharton Social Impact Prize, given to a semifinalist team incorporating social impact into their business plan. The inaugural $10,000 award went to Dana Cita (“Aspiration Fund” in Indonesian), an initiative to help Indonesian youths bridge the education financing and employment gap.
Below are descriptions of the eight finalist business plans. Who do you think won? (You’ll find out at the end of the article — no peeking!)
Abaris: “Who are our target customers?” Wharton graduate student Matt Carey asked the audience. He showed a slide of an older couple in front of a house. “These are my parents.” Winning a chuckle from the attendees, Carey explained that his fledgling company, Abaris, is targeting 10 million upscale American households aged 54 to 65 who are planning their retirement. It is the first-of-its-kind online marketplace for annuities, he noted.
“When you were applying to college or business school, did you ever wish you could view the application files of already-admitted students?” –Lydia Fayal
Carey said that although he has worked at the Treasury Department as a policy advisor on retirement and pension-related issues, even he found the annuity market confusing. Abaris, he pointed out, offers a much-needed unbiased, transparent overview of annuity options, sold on a significantly reduced, flat-commission basis. By cutting out the traditional middlemen — insurance agents and private wealth managers — Abaris will help consumers understand what they are buying and choose the optimal plan. This will also benefit insurance companies, whose annuity sales will become more profitable when the traditional sales channels are eliminated, Carey stated. Abaris will pilot in June and launch by 2015, and anticipates $40 million in revenues by 2018.
AdmitSee: AdmitSee co-founder Lydia Fayal, a University of Pennsylvania law student, began her presentation with a question. “When you were applying to college or business school, did you ever wish you could view the application files of already-admitted students?” Of course, many of us would have liked to — and that is what AdmitSee is counting on. The site, which projects $145,000 in revenues this year and expects to be cash-positive by June 2015, pays accepted students to anonymously post profiles that include their college acceptances, essays, grades, extracurricular activities and advice for new applicants. Users can access basic profile content for free. Unlocking a profile’s full content costs $5 to $20 and packages of 10 profiles from a particular school or based around a particular topic can be purchased for $40.
Fayal and co-founder Stephanie Shyu, also a Penn law student, said that AdmitSee will help level the higher education playing field and build an online community in the process. In the $6 billion college admissions market, with 21.8 million students enrolled in four-year colleges and 25% of applicants applying to more than seven schools, AdmitSee is going head-to-head with much more expensive private consultants who are its main competitors.
Identified Technologies: The oil and gas industry is one of the largest on the planet, and the founders of Identified Technologies say they have just the product for it. The team provides small flying robots — known as quadrotors — to survey and monitor oil and gas pipelines. Pipelines require frequent checking for normal wear and tear, as well as vandalism.
Current pipeline-monitoring methods, said team leader and Wharton PhD candidate Andy Wu, are slow, expensive and imprecise or cannot provide on-demand data. These traditional processes include land-based inspection — which “literally involves teams of men walking along millions of miles of pipeline with handheld scanners” — helicopters and satellites. Wu and his teammate, Dick Zhang, a University of Pennsylvania engineering student, noted that their quadrotors — which come complete with patented docking stations where the robots autonomously swap and charge batteries and offload data — can perform the same work more quickly and more efficiently.
Wu and Zhang see a $1.46 billion market annually in U.S. natural gas monitoring alone, and said they can deliver margins greater than 70%. They are currently in a pilot with a Fortune 200 firm that produces more than 14% of the country’s natural gas.
Matt & Marie’s: Nicole Capp’s great-grandparents immigrated to Brooklyn from Italy, where they opened an Italian grocery and sandwich shop. Now, Capp, who is a Wharton graduate student, has joined team leader Justin Sapolsky to create Matt & Marie’s, a modern Italian sandwich store which will open in Philadelphia’s main business district this summer.
“By doing something you do many times a day, with little or no effort, you can actually make money.” –Sanghoon Kwak
The team says it will bring fine dining-quality food and hospitality to an accessible fast-food format. Sapolsky and Capp compare their concept to Five Guys for burgers and Chipotle for TexMex, saying that these companies hit the consumer “sweet spot” with hearty portion sizes, fresh ingredients, a small targeted menu and a slightly higher price point than traditional fast-food joints.
Matt & Marie’s aims to capture the sandwich market with offerings like the Italian Stallion: coppa, fennel and genoa salami, sharp provolone, house-made sweet pickled peppers and spicy pepperoncini aioli on fresh Italian bread. The two self-confessed “Wharton operations junkies” have carefully engineered their business plan including running math simulations to minimize wait times and creating proprietary automated management tools for their anticipated chain of stores.
PhaseOptics: By 2030, there will be an estimated 35 million diabetics in the U.S. Among diabetes’ more serious complications is blindness. The PhaseOptics team said the company can help prevent diabetes-related blindness with a revolutionary imaging technology that improves early detection and prevention.
According to team leader Frank Brodie, a Perelman School of Medicine and Wharton graduate student, medical standards call for diabetics to be screened at least annually by an ophthalmologist, but about 50% of patients do not go regularly. Moreover, the two existing diagnostic options have drawbacks: One entails a lengthy, invasive procedure, and the other, while easier on the patient, is not nearly as accurate. The team’s patented software, Phase Variance OCT, offers “the best of both worlds,” Brodie noted: A quick, simple procedure that yields images as sharp as more invasive technologies. Plus, the screenings can be performed in the primary care office as part of the patient’s regular visit. The team has received $2 million in National Institutes of Health grants and has a three-phase plan to roll the product out to device manufacturers and medical professionals.
Senvol: Originally a tool for creating one-off prototypes, 3D printing is increasingly being used to manufacture just about anything, from jewelry to aerospace parts. It is an estimated $2.2 billion market with a 28% growth rate. Senvol aims to capitalize on 3D printing’s exponential growth in the manufacturing industry by strategically positioning itself between supply and demand.
According to team leader Zach Simkin, a Wharton graduate student, Senvol applies a proprietary algorithm to help manufacturers determine which of their industrial parts can be produced more cost effectively by using 3D printing. To date, the team has worked with several Fortune 500 companies in the aerospace, oil and gas, consumer products and automotive sectors.
“It was surprising how much misinformation there was out there about renting in Philadelphia, particularly given the abundance of high quality buildings and great places to live.” –Ashrit Kamireddi
Slidejoy: How many times a day do you unlock your phone? As much as 50 to 100 if you’re like many people, according to the Slidejoy team. Slidejoy is an Android app that pays users to view attractively designed ads every time they unlock their phones. In only three months, Slidejoy has garnered more than 18,000 downloads and served over 24 million ad impressions.
“By doing something you do many times a day, with little or no effort, you can actually make money,” said team leader and Wharton graduate student Sanghoon Kwak. Users receive $5 to $10 per month for allowing the ads on their phones, and the payment (in cash or as a charitable donation of their choice) is the same whether or not they engage with the ads (by swiping left).
The Slidejoy app learns users’ preferences over time, taking into account time of day and different locations to create a more profitable, relevant experience, Kwak noted. Initial advertisers include Groupon and Macy’s. Slidejoy has appeared on CNET, CNBC and Fox 29, and expects to be profitable by year-end with one million users.
VeryApt: VeryApt team leaders Ashrit Kamireddi and Scott Bierbryer, both Wharton graduate students, have something in common: They both hated searching for an apartment when they moved to Philadelphia for school. “It was surprising how much misinformation there was out there about renting in Philadelphia, particularly given the abundance of high quality buildings and great places to live,” said Kamireddi. The brainchild of this frustration was VeryApt, a website that helps people find apartments by combining user-generated reviews with big-data analytics to deliver intelligent, personalized recommendations.
Financially supported by the apartment buildings themselves (who benefit from the marketing leads), and targeting upscale prospects such as working professionals and graduate students, VeryApt examines a user’s preferences across 250+ data points to yield a tailored list of apartments including amenity lists, photos and neighborhood guides. So far, the business has generated $50,000 across 25 building subscriptions and sees a $15.5 million-dollar revenue opportunity in Philadelphia alone, the team leaders said. VeryApt anticipates expansion to 20 cities by year three and 50 cities by year five, at which point it projects $45 million in revenues.
And the Winner is…
Slidejoy won first prize. Second place went to PhaseOptics, which also took away the People’s Choice Award. The third prize winner was VeryApt.
Slidejoy’s Kwak said the prize would be “really helpful for us to find a place to work out of and get the whole team in one place…. We’ve been living on friends’ couches and floors for over a year now.” As for PhaseOptics, team leader Brodie said that the team is actively fundraising right now, and the prize money will help support its fundraising trips across the country.
VeryApt team member Scott Bierbryer said the award will help cover legal and office space expenses, as he and his colleagues “really build out the Philly model and then start the business in other cities.”
Now in its 16th year, the Wharton Business Plan Competition has helped develop a number of successful companies including Warby Parker, Petplan, Stylitics, DocASAP, Innova Dynamics and MicroMRI. More than 15 of the “Great Eight” finalists from past years are still in business.