The Wharton Business Plan Competition: Can You Pick the Winner?

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Each year, the Venture Finals of the Wharton Business Plan Competition pits eight tried-and-tested teams of students from throughout the University of Pennsylvania against each other. Winnowed from a much larger field of applicants, the “Great Eight” vie for the votes of a panel of judges for $125,000 in combined cash prizes and services.

Finalists this year presented products and services including, among others plans, “smart-ranch” analytics provided by automated drones; the “Uber of personal training”; a company offering genetically modified bacteria that can break down plastic waste either completely or to a point where the byproduct can be sold to textiles manufacturers; and a curated platform for investment in Africa’s growing middle-class real estate market.

This was the competition’s 18th year, and it won’t soon be forgotten — one team took home more prizes than any predecessor. The finals also were streamed live online, as were the two-minute elevator pitches for the Michelson People’s Choice Award, for which the digital audience was allowed to vote.

The six-month competition featured 150 venture concepts, with more than 350 individual participants from six schools at Penn. Judges cut the field to 25 semifinalists, each of which chose one of three industry tracks: health care, technology and other.

Each finalist had 10 minutes to pitch to the judges — who represented Karlin Asset Management, Golden Seeds, Jet.com, ExamWorks Group, the University City Science Center, and Gilt and Hudson’s Bay Company — 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.

Barn Owl Systems: More than 40% of the United States is rangeland used for livestock, and the top concern of the ranchers who tend to them is ensuring an adequate supply of water. So says Josh Phifer, a Wharton MBA student who was raised on a Wyoming ranch and knows first-hand of the profession’s most time- and capital-consuming tasks.

The average ranch spans 30 square miles and has about 1,500 livestock. Every day, the rancher checks the water levels of his or her 20 to 30 water tanks.

“They drive around or get on their horse and check it,” said Vincent Kuchar, also a Wharton MBA student. “Every day.”

Such infrastructure monitoring is costly and inefficient, which is where Barn Owl Systems comes in.

Phifer also is an experienced Air Force instructor and test pilot with a background in leading aerospace test programs. Kuchar has operated dozens of small drones and has experience integrating sensors and drones into wireless networks.

Along with their Penn-educated engineering team, they provide the software that drives the system’s value. The drones are autonomous, collecting imagery of livestock and natural resources. Persistent sensor monitoring tracks water levels. GPS-enabled ear tags provide real-time locations of livestock. Altogether, Barn Owl offers custom analytics for management of rangeland and livestock.

The United States’ roughly 77,000 ranches account for a $92.5 billion livestock industry, and it’s growing annually by 8.7%. Barn Owl’s addressable market, Kuchar said, is $3.7 billion, comprising water monitoring ($117 million), ranch monitoring ($600 million) and agriculture analytics ($3 billion). Barn Owl’s revenue model includes hardware sales, an annual fee for hardware maintenance and an annual subscription for software and data.

They intend to establish a foothold by distributing water tank sensors and a corresponding smartphone application to all ranches at no cost to ranchers. With that, Barn Owl will have a network of clients who can tap one another, for example, during droughts, shifting livestock to regional ranches with abundant resources.

BioCellection: It began as a high-school science fair project for Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, best friends from Vancouver. They entered a biotechnology competition with a proposal about the biodegradation of plastics, won a national prize and were invited in 2013 to speak at a TED conference.

With two provisional patents for genetically engineered bacteria that eat waste plastics, the co-founders of BioCellection say they’ve found a $42 billion opportunity.

Wang, a Penn undergraduate student, framed plastics pollution as a global crisis — exposure to chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), she noted, is highly correlated with diseases such as prostate and breast cancer. And despite efforts to keep plastics from spending an eternity in landfills, more than 90% of post-consumer plastics are not being recycled.

BioCellection’s bacteria consume polystyrene waste 80 times faster than naturally occurring bacteria. “Using this technology,” Wang said, “we can either break down plastic pollution completely, or we can actually turn plastic pollution into a higher value material.”

That, she said, is the core of what can make BioCellection a $100 million business in four years. The proprietary bacterium can convert, say, a Styrofoam cup into non-toxic carbon dioxide and water. By altering the process by which the bacteria are grown, they can produce a high-value compound called rhamnolipid.

“That means the same bacterium, this one technology, yields two revenue streams: one for a highly valued product, and another for a bioremediation service,” Wang said.

BioCellection’s rhamnolipid byproducts are cheaper and of lower purity than what the textiles industry currently uses to process fabrics. Conventional rhamnolipids are priced at $5,000 per kilogram; BioCellection’s version is $300 per kilogram. That’s a potential boon for the textiles industry, which doesn’t require the high-purity versions used in the saturated markets of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and foods.

For the complete breakdown of plastics, BioCellection will park an onsite mobile processor on beaches, in malls, in recycling centers and waste stations.

“This technology right now is non-existent,” Wang said. “We are inventing this, and this is the first one in the world. The opportunity for breaking down plastic pollution around the world is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and is completely untapped.”

“This technology right now is non-existent. We are inventing this, and this is the first one in the world.”–Miranda Wang

The company is focusing at first on China — once BioCellection has demonstrated prototype feasibility, it can qualify for funding by the Chinese government to the tune of $20 million toward the completion of product trials. Competitors for the funding tend to produce “green plastics,” which doesn’t solve the existing pollution problem.

At pilot scale, Wang said, BioCellection can generate $240,000 a week in rhamnolipid production alone. That’s possible, in part, because sourcing ocean plastics for use in clothing, Yao said, is increasingly popular.

“The implication of this technology succeeding,” Wang said, “is tremendous.” (To read an additional interview with Wang, see our Knowledge@Wharton High School article, “Biotech Innovation That Breaks Down Plastic and Feeds the Fish.”)

brEDcrumb: Scott Elfenbein went to a large public high school in Miami where more than 50% of his class was Hispanic and more than 30% was black. Most of the students qualified for free lunches. And despite the fact that he and his best friend, Juan Gomez, shared similar academic attributes — they ranked 16th and 15th, respectively, in their class; carried GPAs of 3.97 and 3.98; and scored 2250 and 2220 on the SAT — Elfenbein, whose family’s annual income was about $100,000, went to Harvard, whereas Gomez, whose family’s annual income was about $25,000, went to a community college.

His friend, a first-generation college student who worked after school to support his family, had no home computer and didn’t apply to top schools due to cost. Both of Elfenbein’s parents had master’s degrees, and he was able to take an SAT preparatory class. The schools to which they applied saw none of those facts.

Every year, Elfenbein said, 1.5 million of the 3.3 million college-ready high school students will undermatch — they either won’t go to the college best suited for them, or they won’t attend any college.

“When you are underrepresented and underserved,” said Elfenbein, a Wharton graduate student, “you don’t actually have steps to follow; you have obstacles. Finding a fee waiver is incredibly hard. If you’re in a community where no one has ever gone to college, it’s incredibly stressful to find a way to actually go through the application process.”

Academic institutions, meanwhile, have related problems — they’re spending $6 billion a year inefficiently recruiting high schoolers at $2,300 per enrollee, and still they miss 40% of the market. Despite intentions to find underserved students, Elfenbein said, universities aren’t meeting their goals for diversity.

He and his Penn-educated team created a platform called brEDcrumb to connect college hopefuls with volunteer undergraduates, young professionals or graduate students who have shared backgrounds. The technology provides deadline reminders, cloud storage for application materials, simplified financial aid forms, access to prep resources and automated fee waiver claims. The volunteer, which the company calls a role model, provides the applicant guidance in essay-writing, scholarships and navigating college.

More than 400 people already have joined brEDcrumb’s ranks of volunteers, which Elfenbein said is a result of “tapping into their identity” — if a potential mentor feels geographically, ethnically or socio-economically underrepresented, that person might feel inclined to lend a hand to a hopeful student who shares a similar background.

The platform streamlines the work of admissions officers, who he said typically get only an email address and a mailing address for a prospective student who has met certain criteria. To ensure that brEDcrumb is building a viable product, the company has consulted with admissions officers in Philadelphia and Boston.

“We’ve built a product for admissions officers by admissions officers,” Elfenbein said. Funding has followed, from Penn, the University of Chicago, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This summer, brEDcrumb through its pilot program intends to send 100 students to college. Next year, the goal is 400 to 500. At scale, the company expects that total to reach 250,000 students per year. Universities are willing to spend $2,300 to land each student, and brEDcrumb’s costs will be $800 for each. That’s a 65% gross margin, and at scale it would yield a $375-million-per-year gross profit.

After his friend finished community college, Elfenbein helped him daily in applying to four-year schools. Gomez earned a full ride to Georgetown University and, last fall, he was admitted to Wharton.

Daylight OB, LLC: Every year, there are 300,000 emergency second-stage Cesarean section deliveries in the United States alone. The procedure is necessary when the baby is in distress, when the mother is so tired she no longer can push, or when the baby becomes impacted in the birth canal. An arrest of descent often renders the surgeon unable to deliver the baby through the uterine incision because the baby already has progressed far down the birth canal.

Christina Wray, a Wharton graduate student also in line for an M.D., encountered such a predicament during a labor-and-delivery rotation.

“At this point,” she said, “I had to actually get down on my hands and knees, crawl under the sterile drapes, and then use my hands to push the baby back up through the birth canal into the uterus so that it could be delivered.”

Such is the standard of care, Wray said, despite associations with serious outcomes for all parties. The baby faces an increased risk of skull fracture, intracranial hemorrhage, asphyxia and death. The mother is six times more likely to sustain trauma of the lower uterine segment and has a 50% increased risk of extension of the uterine incision. She’s also nine times more likely to experience a procedure that lasts longer than 90 minutes. All of these factors, due to increased blood loss and infection rates, can extend the patient’s length of stay.

Wray and four colleagues launched the medical-device company Daylight OB, LLC, to improve conditions in labor and delivery units. Its first product is a disposable obstetrics device, called Daylight, used to reposition a baby for an urgent cesarean delivery. It’s a simple, injection-molded device that has a curved handle on one end and a disk-shaped silicone cushion on the other. To use it, an assistant gently applies pressure to the baby’s head and steadily pushes the baby back into the uterus, where it can be delivered through the incision.

As they interviewed more than 50 physicians about their first product to validate the market need and to gather ideas about design improvements, the Penn-educated team, led by Wharton graduate student Neil Bansal, often was asked if it would consider developing other obstetrics devices. The team realized it could leverage what it had learned about the regulatory, intellectual property, manufacturing and commercialization processes for additional devices.

At $150 each, the Daylight would enjoy a shortened hospital approval process, would remain under the reimbursement umbrella of a cesarean procedure and would face no negotiations with payers. The company’s first targets are obstetricians at the nation’s 10 highest-volume hospitals.

Our Frontier Crowd: Wharton graduate student Greg Hagin is bullish on African real estate. He and four colleagues — three of whom, like Hagin, are candidates for an Executive MBA — are building an investment platform that taps into the flow of capital.

“As we know,” Hagin said, “Africa represents the growth story of our time. It’s where investment is moving in terms of infrastructure, development, roads, power, water — it is the economic buildout of our generation.”

Our Frontier Crowd is focusing on the middle-class housing markets of select countries, particularly Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon, where middle-class incomes have been growing significantly during the past five years.

Major American investors are interested in such opportunities, Hagin said, but “there’s an overhang of unused capital in the system, over $4 billion alone in private equity monies that have been raised have not been invested on the continent at this time.”

The issue, he said, comes down to trust and confidence with local operating partners.

Our Frontier Crowd has consulted with the United Nations; the Canadian government; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; Brian Trelstad, the former chief investment officer of the Acumen Fund; and Dick Henriques, the former CFO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“There’s a striking common theme related to a lack of trust, confidence and the need for local operating partnerships,” Hagin said.

That’s where the purveyors of Our Frontier Crowd see its opportunity — they want to provide a residential real estate platform dedicated to investment opportunities in Africa. They want to connect African real-estate developers and potential home-buyers with foreign investors.

Part of that equation is team member Aristide Toundzi, originally from Cameroon. He has an extensive local network and a family of builders and developers. He is a bridge to local trust.

Part of the equation is mobile technology — desktop computers aren’t necessary when 4G wireless is available. Local users of Our Frontier Crowd can validate, reject or co-invest in the carefully vetted projects on the platform.

“It’s an added layer of due diligence for our properties,” Hagin said, and it sends a strong signal to potential foreign investors regarding quality and risk.

He cited a scalable market opportunity of $181 billion and anticipated revenue of more than $75 million by 2020, with earnings approaching $30 million.

“Africa represents the growth story of our time. It’s where investment is moving in terms of infrastructure, development, roads, power, water — it is the economic buildout of our generation.”–Greg Hagin

“A lot of people are salivating about the opportunity in Africa,” Toundzi, a Wharton executive MBA student, said. “A lot of people will lose a lot of money. We will leverage our networks. It’s really through those connections that we can understand who, between Developer A and B, is a good person to work with.”

Qorum: While working in technology and nightlife with his last venture, Andrew Pietra, a Wharton graduate student raised in Southern California, grew frustrated with liquor companies’ “Drink Responsibly” ad campaigns. He found them to be poorly targeted, squandering hundreds of millions of dollars as they glamorized partying and placed the burden of responsibility on the consumer.

On-demand ride services, meanwhile, had taken the nation by storm. Pietra, who said he lost several friends to drinking and driving, thought there might be a way to have alcohol brands sponsor rides home from bars. With Qorum, he believes he has a solution.

Alcohol brands want to target millennials. They also spend mandated “Drink Responsibly” dollars. Qorum helps alcohol brands sponsor up to 10,000 free Uber rides home from bars per month. In exchange for guaranteed product placement and distribution throughout a network of bars, participating brands will pick up the fare. Qorum gets 10% of the value of each ride.

A suite of mobile apps, along with point-of-sale integration, also can be a boon to bars. When a participating bar wants to increase traffic, it can increase a discount to, say, 20%. Qorum’s platform automatically starts delivering thousands of customized social media ads to non-Qorum users nearby. As new customers arrive, the bar can view relevant information — how often they visit, how long they stay, how much they spend and how they rate competing bars.

“The data that they have now is so terrible,” Pietra said. “When I was in college, I used to go to [a market research company], and they’d pay me $25, and there’d be six other kids. We’re 21 — the liquor companies want to know what we’re doing. They’d ask us survey questions — what’s your favorite spirit, what brand — and everyone’s lying. Everyone says, ‘Oh, I like Grey Goose.’ No you don’t. That’s not what you drink. And so this actually gives them real data that can tell them, what does this 26-year-old male drink when he’s in Los Angeles versus when he’s on vacation in Miami?”

The data help Qorum identify a bar’s customers with the highest lifetime value and “retarget them daily on social media to keep them coming back.” Aggregated user data and customer feedback are displayed on a dashboard within the app. A bar’s owner can explore his or her best customers based on factors such as age, gender and location. The software learns which customers are most likely to become loyal patrons, and it delivers the appropriate ads. Qorum has 26 bar partners, Pietra said, in its launch market of Southern California.

QTEK: Have you ever wondered, Wharton graduate student Mengya Li asked, if the toilet seat you just sat on was clean? How about that sticky handle on the subway car? Or the visibly worn baby-changing station?

Bacteria and fungi can grow anywhere, and where they thrive, infections can spread from person to person. Plastics companies use three types of antimicrobial additives — organic compounds, ionic silver or other metals — to counter this. Those options, Li said, are inadequate.

Organic compounds, which account for 67% of market share, contain toxic chemicals that consumers have been avoiding for many years. Over the past couple of years, she said, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies have banned the use of most organic compounds in human-interaction applications.

Ionic silver and other metals, she said, are expensive, ineffective and bad for the environment.

Li and her company, QTEK, have a solution. Their first product is Surfion, an ionic copper-based antimicrobial powder additive that is mixed into the plastic — one application, with no required maintenance. The material and process are patented. And they’re working on new applications.

“In fresh produce packaging,” Li said, “it can keep delicious strawberries and mushrooms fresh for much longer. It can prevent mold growth in your own bathroom. Used on school desks or toys, it can prevent infections spreading from one child to the next.”

QTEK will supply the raw material to chemical and plastics companies, which in turn serve consumer, industrial and medical needs.

Surfion, Li said, protects against bacteria and fungi; organic compounds and ionic silver cover only bacteria. Surfion’s patented technology allows its active ingredient to be released over 13 years; organic compounds and ionic silver aren’t durable for even a year. Surfion’s price, $50 per kilogram, is less than half the $120 of ionic silver.

“This is an existing market valued at $4 billion today and growing at a rate of 10% every year,” she said.

QTEK, Li said, has received more than 60 requests for samples of Surfion and is in production trials with several Fortune 500 companies. Stricter regulations, she said, make North American plastics companies QTEK’s first target.

WeTrain: Jonathan Sockol and Zach Hertzel bounded into the auditorium of Huntsman Hall, trailed by a dozen people who clapped in syncopation and flanked the aisles. All were fit, and all wore the t-shirt of the pair’s venture, a company that bills itself as the “Uber of personal training.”

“In fresh produce packaging, [Surfion] can keep delicious strawberries and mushrooms fresh for much longer. It can prevent mold growth in your own bathroom. Used on school desks or toys, it can prevent infections spreading from one child to the next.”–Mengya Li

Sockol, a Wharton graduate student, spoke of losing 60 pounds and feeling energized, then lamented the cost of hiring a personal trainer — nationally, gyms charge an average of $60 per session. Hertzel, a master trainer and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was a medic in the U.S. Army, spoke of frustrations from the trainer’s perspective — of that $60 average session, the trainer typically sees no more than $15. That, he said, contributes to a high burnout rate among trainers.

Personal training is a $40 billion market, with 700,000 daily sessions in the United States, and the founders of WeTrain say they’ve created an opportunity that will benefit both trainers and their clients.

The service, which charges $49.95 monthly for access to reduced rates and $99.95 for even more perks, offers its members training sessions for as low as $15 per half-hour. The company keeps the membership fees; the trainers keep the member client’s entire session fee. WeTrain also offers single-serving sessions ($29.95 for 30 minutes, $49.95 for 60), of which trainers keep $15 and $25, respectively.

WeTrain says its personal trainers and yoga, pilates and cycling instructors can train clients anywhere, anytime, with or without gym equipment. They can visit in-person or virtually, via live video chat in which they offer guidance as the client practices.

To request an immediate session or to schedule one (80%-85% of sessions thus far, Sockol said, have been scheduled in advance), a user of the mobile app chooses a start time, selects either a 30- or 60-minute session and focal area (i.e. core, cardio, strength, flexibility), and confirms his or her location.

All instructors are certified, insured, have background checks and interview with the training team. A ratings system adds a layer of popular vetting.

“We are really redistributing the power from the gym to the trainers,” Sockol said.

Within three months of WeTrain’s first push of mainstream marketing, its more than 100 trainers had led more than 1,000 sessions within the Center City launch’s three-mile radius. It recently signed a $30,000 contract with a residential community.

And the Winner is …

BioCellection won the Perlman Grand Prize, which includes $30,000 and opportunities to represent The Wharton School/University of Pennsylvania at other business plan competitions. It was the first undergraduate team to win the Grand Prize.

It also was the first team in BPC history to win five total awards. BioCellection took the Wharton Social Impact Prize ($10,000), the Gloeckner Undergraduate Award ($10,000), the Michelson People’s Choice Award ($3,000) and the Committee Award for Most “Wow Factor” ($1,000).

Wang and her team, which officially launched BioCellection last May, secured another $60,000 in investments during the two weeks immediately following the competition. She said the company is “well on our way to closing our $400,000 Series 1 Bridge Round because of the exposure we’ve received” through the competition. Plastics manufacturers in China and the United States have contacted BioCellection for opportunities to collaborate.

Luke Chow, for example, owns a Maryland-based plastic-injection company, Prime Manufacturing Technologies. He attended the finals with BioCellection in mind; this summer, Wang said, Chow will produce, on a small scale, different types of plastics for laboratory use. He also will connect the BioCellection team with U.S.-based experts in plastic polymer science.

Michael Chea, meanwhile, expressed interest from a fashion perspective — he spoke with the team about building a textiles manufacturing center in Philadelphia, and those discussions will continue.

For now, BioCellection is moving to its own lab at the San Jose BioCube. There, Wang and her team will work with two companies to develop BioCellection’s tech and business. Wang will visit China to form early partnerships with outsource manufacturers, to make early contacts with government agencies, to gather scientific data from contaminated beaches and to find a market entry point for bioremediation. Within six months, she said, they will hire a full-time genetic engineer and file their first non-provisional patent.

Second prize ($15,000) went to brEDcrumb. Third prize ($10,000) went to WeTrain, which at 2015’s Venture Finals won the Committee Choice award.

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.

Qorum won the Committee Award for Best Pitch ($1,000), and Barn Owl won the Committee Award for Best Use of Technology ($1,000).

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