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What 50 promising Penn startups can teach us about how companies are born

The Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund's Dan Cahana took a look at data from the group's portfolio companies. Here's what he found.

Twine cofounders Joseph Quan and Nikhil Srivastava were among the 50 startups funded by Penn's Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund. (Photo by Mike Kaiser)
This is a guest post by the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund's Dan Cahana.

Penn students are always building things, from hockey-playing robots to trading algorithms. And increasingly, students are turning these projects into startups.

Over the past five years, the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund has been fortunate enough to fund and support 50 of those startups. In the process, student project managers like myself have seen everything from back of the napkin ideas to companies that have raised tens of thousands of dollars. Along the way, the Innovation Fund has gotten a unique look at the state of entrepreneurship at Penn — we see which students are founding companies, which problems they’re solving and which organizations are supporting them, both before and after graduation.

When we relaunched the fund a couple months ago, I decided to take a deeper look at the companies we’ve invested in. What I discovered was founders benefiting from the Penn startup ecosystem in two main ways: by teaming up with students with complimentary skillsets and by taking advantage of free resources and networks within Penn.

Engineering and business students keep teaming up

Given the strength of Penn’s Engineering and Business schools, it’s probably unsurprising that nearly three quarters of the founders we’ve backed have come from either Wharton or the School of Engineering. However, academic life at Penn can be very fragmented, with students staying solely within the realm of their own schools. Starting companies, I found, has catalyzed cross-pollination of ideas from students across Penn’s various schools.

Of the 50 companies we’ve funded, a mere seven were founded by a single student. Over 50 percent of the remaining companies were founded by students from multiple schools at Penn, with the most common founder combo being Wharton and Engineering undergrads. Founders from these schools tend to only start companies with a partner-in-crime from another school, as opposed to doing things solo. Only 15 percent of companies with a Wharton or Engineering cofounder have exclusively Wharton or Engineering cofounders.

In other words, there’s a real co-dependence among the schools. Wharton students actively seek help on the technical side and Engineering students on the business side. That shouldn’t be taken for granted, as undergrads from the two schools rarely interact inside the classroom, which is where many companies start.

Startups take advantage of Penn’s resources

Penn startups are often born out of university resources. For example, startups in the biotech space, the industry most represented in our portfolio, often get their start in competitions like Y-Prize, or from commercializing research through the new Penn Center for Innovation. Looking at Penn startups that went on to raise venture capital, I found that on average companies had six months of runway after the founders’ graduation before raising their first round, thanks in part to non-dilutive funds like the Innovation Fund  and more (check out a post by the Dorm Room Fund for an exhaustive list).

When they did raise money, many Penn startups were doing so with the help of alumni and professors. A number of our portfolio companies went on to raise rounds led by Penn alumni like Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital and Aydin Senkut at Felicis Ventures or angel funding from professors including Karl Ulrich and Kartik Hosanagar. That follow-on support is a sign of the health of the Penn startup ecosystem as well. Professors, administrators and alumni are eager to get involved with student-founded startups not only on-campus, but as companies grow after graduation.

Starting a company at Penn and looking to take advantage of some of these resources? We can help! Drop us a line at


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