The Venture Finals of the latest Wharton Business Plan Competition, which for 17 years has placed teams of students from throughout the University of Pennsylvania before a panel of judges, featured more than the usual diversity of ideas.
This year’s “Great Eight,” who vied for more than $128,000 in combined cash prizes and services, included four teams led by undergraduates. Three of the eight were led by women. And one included Wharton graduate students from both the Philadelphia and San Francisco programs.
By day’s end, finalists had presented, among other ideas, a wearable technology that verbally identifies what a visually impaired person holds before his or her eyes; a sustainable system in which waste from a fish tank is converted to food for plants that yield fruits and vegetables on the rooftops of supermarkets, and a collection of luxury outerwear and accessories whose linings are designed by established artists or, perhaps, by the wearer.
The competition this year featured 175 teams and included 537 participants from 10 schools at Penn. More than 360 judges vetted the first round of competitors. The 25 teams that advanced to the semifinals were divided into three tracks: health care, technology and other. The eight finalists represented Wharton’s undergraduate and graduate schools and Wharton’s executive MBA program, in addition to Penn’s College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences.
Each finalist had 10 minutes to pitch to the judges — who represented CoVenture, Karlin Asset Management, DreamIt Ventures, Devon Hill Capital Partners, InSparq and ExamWorks Group — followed by 10 minutes of follow-up questions.
Here, in alphabetical order, are descriptions of the eight finalists’ business plans. Which would you choose? At the end of the article, learn how your pick compares with the BPC panel’s choices.
Bungalow Insurance: Wharton MBA students Tom Austin and Zack Stiefler noticed a disconnect between insurance providers and the millennials that represent the next generation of potential customers. Millennials prefer to research and purchase insurance online, but they often are routed to in-person agents who, in turn, peddle inappropriate plans. They noted that most millennials (67%) rent their homes and don’t own cars (55%), but just 37% of renters have the appropriate insurance.
With Bungalow Insurance, Austin and Stiefler said, a simpler use of data and design will help to capitalize on a marketplace they find has too much friction for younger consumers. Property managers, the pair noted, increasingly require renters insurance and are educating tenants on Bungalow’s behalf.
The company’s near-term strategy is to integrate with partner services.
“Anything that touches a renter — cable companies, moving companies, things like ZipCar, things like Uber — those can be potential partners to get people renters insurance,” Austin said.
One avenue of particular interest is online rent payment. During their presentation, Austin shared a mock-up of a proposed integration with one of the largest online rent payment companies in the country. At the bottom of the page, he noted, “all we’ve done is included a check-box next to a line that says, ‘Add renters insurance for as little as $10/month.’ This is how renters insurance should be sold. This is taking the friction out of the process.”
Thirty percent to 50% of the people Bungalow has surveyed have said they would check the box.
Ultimately, Austin and Stiefler see a potential for long-term connections with customers, leading to direct-to-consumer sales as renters become buyers.
Fever Smart: When Collin Hill, a Wharton undergraduate student and a co-founder of Fever Smart, faced chemotherapy treatment for Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he noticed a need for the continuous monitoring of his body temperature.
“We’re taking things that already work and are simply combining them in a new way.” –Julia Kurnik
That was the impetus that led him, along with Wharton undergraduate Aaron Goldstein, University of Pennsylvania engineering student William Duckworth and 2014 Penn graduate Becca Goldstein to create Fever Smart. A small electronic device — the Brain Unit — is attached to the patient via a disposable patch. The device monitors body temperature and, using a nano-Bluetooth chip, transmits data in real-time to a Relay Unit in the same room. The patent-pending Relay Unit sends the data to Fever Smart’s servers. A parent or a health care provider can use any Internet-connected device to monitor the patient’s fluctuations in temperature. They also can set alerts for when temperatures reach unsafe levels.
The company set a goal of $40,000 for its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign; it raised $62,986. During the past six months, sales have grown to more than $150,000. At about $130 for the smart-device application, the Bluetooth thermometer and 10 patches — supplemental patches are about $8 for 10 — Goldstein and his team see potential for additional revenue in subscription models and via institutional purchases that could ease demands on staffing at health care centers.
FOCUS Foods: As the global population grows — it’s expected to exceed nine billion by 2040 — the sustainability of organic food sources increasingly is in jeopardy. Agriculture accounts for more than 80% of potable water use, even as news of widespread droughts dominates headlines.
Julia Kurnik, a Wharton MBA student, pitched a solution that would cut water costs by 95% and entirely eliminate the need to use fertilizer and pesticides: Aquaponics, which combines soil-free agriculture (hydroponics) and fish-farming (aquaculture) in a nearly closed-loop system. Fish waste is pumped into a hydroponic system, where bacteria break it down into nitrates and nitrites, feeding the plants. That filters the water, which returns to the fish tanks.
“We’re taking things that already work,” Kurnik said, “and are simply combining them in a new way.”
Aquaponics is a proven method of growing produce and protein-rich fish, but FOCUS Foods aims to bring such systems to the rooftops of the supermarkets that sell the food. Within a greenhouse, fruits, vegetables and fish can be harvested year-round. The financial and environmental costs of transportation and distribution are virtually eliminated.
Kurnik and her partner, Geoff Becker, have a partnership with Brown’s Super Stores, which operates a chain of ShopRites in Greater Philadelphia. She estimated that a 60,000-square-foot rooftop system would cost about $400,000 to build. (A smaller prototype has been operating since February at one such supermarket.) Eventually, FOCUS Foods wants to build stand-alone farms to supply produce and fish for farm-to-table restaurants.
KidFoods: A 30% drop in time devoted to child care and housework. A 50% jump in the number of working mothers. A 40% increase in demand for food that’s healthy, fresh and natural.
Considered together, those factors, as presented by Wharton MBA students Rishi Reddy, Neil Vangala and Jessica Winschel, account in part for a child-focused food market worth $30 billion. Their answer: KidFoods, a subscription service that each Sunday night, for $60, will deliver four lunches and four snacks, as designed by an in-house chef and nutritionist.
Menu designs incorporate themes — Geometry Week, for example, offers a variety of foods arranged by shape — and are targeted at mothers with children ages 3 to 12. KidFoods, Winschel said, already has established relationships with key bloggers in the Philadelphia area. The potential for connections with community influencers, including parent-teacher associations and, perhaps, schools as a whole, has led the trio to project that 275 recurring customers would yield $1 million in sales.
Prayas Analytics: Online retailers such as Amazon know everything about their customers, said Yash Kothari, a senior in Wharton’s undergraduate program. He and Pranshu Maheshwari, also a Wharton undergraduate senior, co-founded Prayas Analytics to give brick-and-mortar retailers similar data.
“We think this is just the start of the movement to quantify the offline world the way the online world has been quantified.” –Pranshu Maheshwari
“We want to quantify the entire retail store,” Maheshwari said. “Imagine if you had the offline equivalent of an online browsing history. If you [knew] Customers 1, 2 and 3 took this path through the store, looked at these three products and eventually bought this fourth product, that’s incredibly powerful information that retailers don’t have right now that their online counterparts do, and are able to make a lot of use of it.”
Prayas uses software to analyze the feeds of security cameras already in place, collecting continuous data on, among other things, queue length, speed of service and customer abandonment. Within a week of the implementation of a pilot program, one store learned that installing line stanchions had reduced customer abandonment by 33%.
“And even better than that, even bigger than retail,” Maheshwari said, “the technology that we’re developing in image analysis and image processing will be able to help us analyze things in more industries — transportation, health care, even government. We think this is just the start of the movement to quantify the offline world the way the online world has been quantified.”
Silver Lining: Billed as “outerwear for optimists,” the classically designed outerwear and accessories of this company feature linings designed in collaboration with established artists. Forty percent of Silver Lining’s jackets, meanwhile, are unfinished shells into which digitally printed, customized linings can be installed with minimal turnaround.
Team leader Rel Lavizzo-Mourey, a Wharton MBA student at San Francisco, is the founder and designer. The 6% of gross profits that Silver Lining has pledged to support arts education speaks to her background — Lavizzo-Mourney has an undergraduate degree from Princeton in education policy and visual arts.
The company, which includes Wharton MBA students Miriam Williams and Pav Dharwarkar (San Francisco), has completed its first round of production to deliver on more than $28,000 of pre-sales — a successful Kickstarter campaign and $5,000 in sales at a recent San Francisco pop-up store yielded an average jacket order of $610.
Silver Lining is aiming for the luxury market and predicts 65% average gross margins, with a total market-share goal of nearly $1 billion.
Soceana: Long before she founded Soceana, a technology platform that helps corporations manage and promote corporate social responsibility, Tess Michaels was volunteering in hospitals, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Her interests, however, often didn’t match the tasks to which she was assigned. She felt unfulfilled.
Now a senior in Wharton’s undergraduate program, Michaels wanted to create a marketplace for social good, a way to wed the four primary stakeholders — corporations, non-profits, philanthropists and volunteers. Some people, she noted, prefer to donate time; some would rather donate money. Soceana’s patent-pending digital social currency, called philas, which Michaels described as “air miles for social good,” works interchangeably with both.
Donors can make pledges with conditions for volunteers to meet. Each volunteer earns philas for each hour of service. That volunteer then can allocate the philas to a charitable organization, unlocking the pledged funds. The goal is to create a multiplying effect for each donation and hour of volunteerism. (In her research, Michaels found that an hour of volunteerism is worth $22.55.)
Among Soceana’s advisors is Eric Ly, a co-founder of LinkedIn. By March of 2015, Soceana had attracted $250,000 from impact investors. Strategic partners include IBM and VolunteerMatch, which pairs seven million volunteers with 102,000 nonprofits.
ThirdEye: “Over time,” said Rajat Bhageria, a freshman electrical engineering student, “visually impaired people learn to become dependent on others. And so they don’t think they can be independent.”
Bhageria — with fellow University of Pennsylvania freshmen Ben Sandler, David Ongchoco and Joe Cappadona — is a co-founder of ThirdEye, an application for Google Glass that provides verbal feedback of whatever is before the user when he or she says aloud, “OK, Glass, recognize this.”
The quartet, which has partnered with the National Federation of the Blind, played a brief video in which a person using the product was handed change after a purchase. He held it in view of the camera and spoke the prompt.
“Processing,” a female voice said. “American five-dollar bill.”
“This isn’t the right change,” the user deadpanned. Most among the Venture Finals audience laughed.
“We have seen rapid growth, and will be able to use this funding to facilitate this growth.” –Aaron Goldstein
Humor, indeed, was a key component of the ThirdEye team’s approach — they capped their presentation by touting a Google Glass giveaway; afterward, during their two-minute elevator pitch for the Michelson People’s Choice Award, they laughed and told the snacking audience there would be no such giveaway, as they were poor college students.
ThirdEye, however, pointed to a clear demographic: The approximately seven million blind people in America, which grows by about 200,000 per year and accounts for more than $41.1 billion spent annually on assistive technologies. A clinical study this summer will be a prelude to a Kickstarter campaign.
When a judge asked about potential markets beyond the visually impaired, Bhageria said the capabilities of ThirdEye could be attractive to entirely separate industries.
“In the long run,” he said, “maybe after two or three years, we hope to separate the concept of ThirdEye as computer-vision smart glasses from ThirdEye as a product for the visually impaired. Because once we have the former, now we can create applications for military and for facial recognition, recognizing fluids and recognizing medicines.”
And the Winner is …
Bungalow Insurance won the Perlman Grand Prize, which includes $30,000 and opportunities to represent The Wharton School/University of Pennsylvania at other business plan competitions. Austin said the company plans to use the money to expand outside of Pennsylvania.
Second prize ($15,000) went to FeverSmart. Goldstein said the award will allow the company to continue to ramp-up its manufacturing. “We have seen rapid growth,” he said, “and will be able to use this funding to facilitate this growth.” FeverSmart also won the Gloeckner Award ($10,000), designated for the highest ranking team that has undergraduates as at least half of its members.
Soceana took third place ($10,000). “Soceana has raised capital from impact investors,” Michaels said, “so for us, BPC was about the learning, mentorship and the recognition among other Penn start-ups. For me, it is a key milestone in my entrepreneurial journey at Penn. Winning at BPC also paved the way for us to join the Venture Initiation Program at Wharton and increase Soceana’s momentum.”
Each of the top three prize winners also will receive up to $10,000 of in-kind legal services and $5,000 of in-kind accounting services.
ThirdEye won the Michelson’s People’s Choice Award ($3,000) and the Committee Award for Most Disruptive ($1,000).
The Wharton Social Impact Prize ($10,000) went to semifinalist Cure Accelerator. Committee Awards of $1,000 each went to semifinalists My Best Friend’s Weekend (Best Business Plan) and WeTrain (Committee’s Choice).