Apps / Technology

These Penn grad students want to build virtual prisons, Airbnb for driveways and more

Both ideas won big at AppItUP, Penn's annual mobile app competition.

Judges at the AppItUP Challenge, November 2015. (Courtesy photo)
Additional reporting by Juliana Reyes.

The best and brightest of Penn’s faculty, staff and student body slugged it out last week at the AppItUP competition to see who had the best idea for an app. Winners ranged from virtual prisons to driveways rented by the hour to fitness wearables that actually work.
Now in its third year and in a format not unlike ABC’s “Shark Tank,” AppItUP invited semifinalists to pitch their ideas to a panel of investors and developers. The prize: pro bono prototyping by a web dev firm and possible future business support from the investors. All the web dev firms were local, like Promptworks, CloudMine and Brick Simple. (What’s in it for the web dev firms? It’s a business development pipeline, said Penn’s Karina Sotnik, who runs the competition.)
It’s another effort on Penn’s to encourage more spinout startups, a push we’ve seen from universities all over the city, like Drexel and Temple. Penn has equity in the companies that launch out of AppItUP, Sotnik said.
Part of the program’s focus was to open up app development to people who might not otherwise consider it, like lawyers and poets, Sotnik said. This effort was a mixed success — while ideas came from ten schools across Penn, almost half of the 313 submissions came from the Wharton School of Business. (That’s up from the first year of the competition, when one-quarter of the overall 200 submissions came from Wharton.)
One person actually submitted 32 different ideas, accounting for more than 10 percent of the 313 ideas submitted. None of them got through, Sotnik said. (She’s considering instituting a cap on the number of ideas people can submit next year, she said, since it’s not fair to the venture capitalists who have to go through them all.)
These ideas were rated by a group of venture capitalists and angel investors from firms like Osage Partners, Safeguard Scientifics and Robin Hood Ventures for their business potential, and the ten highest-rated ideas progressed to the semifinals. Though Wharton ideas accounted for nearly half the submissions, the two schools that were most represented in the semifinals were the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

appitup stats 2015

(Courtesy of Penn)

The semifinalists gave three-minute pitches followed by three-minute Q&A sessions. The winners for this year were:

  • AerO2Max (to be built by Promptworks): Basically FitBit, if FitBit worked. AerO2Max will piggyback on existing wearables to measure an exerciser’s oxygen intake and how efficiently their body is using it, in order to track longer-term health improvements [Hansell H. Stedman: faculty physician; Hansell C. Stedman: undergraduate student; and Ben Kozyak: alumnus]
  • Animotion (to be built by Cloudmine and Excellis): This app helps patients, doctors and physical therapists to track joint function easily in real-time, to better guide rehabilitative efforts [Sylvia Qu and Peter Gebhard: graduate students]
  • BeyondBars (to be built by WhiteLake Interactive): An “alternative to brick-and-mortar prisons” for nonviolent offenders. Its creator, Alan Holden, says it offers a “gamified system… a point system. See your progress as you complete prosocial tasks. When you get a 100 points, maybe you get your zone of movement or your curfew extended.” The app slogan is “Envisioning a new ecosystem of virtual incarceration.” [Alan Holden: graduate student]
  • CME Recording (to be built by Offshorent): This app allows physicians to more easily maintain their continuing medical education (CME) credits by monitoring their consumption of educational materials. This proved to be the most popular app, with two different studios fighting over development rights [Brian Jenssen: faculty physician]
  • Nap Sats (to be built by Brick Simple): Now you can track your sleep quality without having to stay overnight in dedicated facilities [Milind Patel: resident physician]
  • Park It (to be built by Valex): Make your driveway earn its keep by renting it out. This is basically Airbnb for event parking, with eyes to more general parking in the future [Taylor Mills and John Jimenez: graduate students]


Det Ansinn of Brick Simple, one of the web dev firms participating in AppItUP. (Courtesy photo)

Two winners from previous events spoke at the event to discuss how their development process is playing out.
Dave Edwards, winner of the inaugural AppItUP event, is nearing his app’s launch. “Rescufy” (formerly Anaphylaxis 911) puts an emergency button on your lockscreen so that you can get help during anaphylactic shock as quickly and simply as possible.
Beth Desouza, CEO of Vifant and a finalist of last year’s AppItUP, expects her app to launch in the next nine months. Vifant will identify vision problems in patients as young as two months to facilitate early intervention. Desouza also pitched at PACT’s venture capital conference IMPACT earlier this month.
Of the eleven companies created in the last two years of AppItUP, four have received funding, Sotnik said. Those include Rescufy and Vifant, which both received angel funding, and healthcare app Decnut, which got funded by Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
Our main takeaway, after watching all the pitches? If you can describe your app as “Like X, but for Y,” you’re golden.

Companies: Promptworks / Brick Simple / Ben Franklin Technology Partners / CloudMine / Osage Partners / Robin Hood Ventures / Safeguard Scientifics / University of Pennsylvania

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