Pandemic Learnings Inform Hybrid Model for 2021 StartUp Fest

The premiere annual entrepreneurship event hosted by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship will be more immersive, accessible, and alumni-oriented than years past while still highlighting the student startup ecosystem at Drexel.

Though in-person events hosted on Drexel University’s campus are once again possible, the ongoing pandemic makes it hard for things to go back to exactly the way they were before. And in some cases, that’s not even at all the desire.

Take this year’s StartUp Fest — the premiere annual entrepreneurship event hosted by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship — which will be held Nov. 4–5 for the first time in a hybrid format along with a slew of other updates stemmed from learnings when the event took place completely virtually last year.

“We’ve always wanted to have more online access, even when StartUp Fest was completely in-person,” said Melissa Tevere, program manager for the Close School. “So having to do it remotely last year forced us to think of new and creative ways to reach our audience.”

Updates to the annual event for 2021 include a change of venue, as previously when in-person, StartUp Fest took place primarily in Behrakis Grand Hall. This year, events on Nov. 4 will take place in the Pearlstein Building, the Close School’s home on campus, and on Nov. 5 from the stage of the Mandell Theater.

Though in-person offerings and access to certain events like this year’s Proving Ground Expo — which features displays by Drexel student startups and festival sponsors — may be more limited than in year’s past, virtual components of this year’s StartUp Fest will open other events to a wider audience. For example, this year’s Fast Pitch Competition, which will round out the Nov. 4 events starting at 3 p.m., has been reformatted to allow for both the in-person and virtual audience to follow along. This was previously not the case for the competition with its annual $500 cash prize — that is, until last year.

“We traditionally held the Fast Pitch competition in Behrakis Hall where we had several tables set up, with judges at each table, and the students would go from table to table to pitch their idea. It was impossible as a viewer of the competition to hear every pitch,” Tevere explained. “Last year, when we had to do it remotely, everyone could see every single pitch. This [addressed] feedback we got from prior years that people were interested in hearing all pitches.”

Have a startup idea that you can sell in two minutes? All Drexel students can register for the Fast Pitch Competition up until the start of the event on Nov. 4.

A pre-pandemic photo taken during the Baiada Institute Incubator Competition — the cornerstone StartUp Fest event.
A pre-pandemic photo taken during the Baiada Institute Incubator Competition — the cornerstone StartUp Fest event.

And though the competitors have already been determined (aside from one wild card to be announced the day of) for the Baiada Institute Incubator Competition, anyone attending this year’s StartUp Fest won’t want to miss this cornerstone event taking place starting at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 and doling out $25,000 in cash prizes for student entrepreneurs. The competition is annually open to Dragons from across the University, no matter what their year, major or background.

Last year’s winning entrepreneurs, the duo behind WOLF Financial, will even be back at this year’s StartUp Fest to explain their success in working to launch their own brokerage app.

Chuck Sacco, associate dean for strategy and innovation and director of the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, said StartUp Fest is a an ideal place to learn about all the happenings within the student startup ecosystem at Drexel.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to learn, to pitch, to try things, to hear from their classmates about new ideas that they’re pitching, to hear from industry experts and to network,” he said. “You can come to things that are interesting to you — you don’t have to be there the entire day. We’ve designed it in a way that will work in and around your class schedule. It’s free, and it’s a great opportunity for students to spend time learning and immersing themselves.”

Sacco added that organizers have worked to make StartUp Fest more immersive and experiential overall this year than ever before. The festival is also themed around sustainability to honor Drexel’s Climate Year — a yearlong concentration on climate and sustainability at the University and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

“When you see the agenda, you see that some of it is tied to climate and sustainability and things that are obviously pretty important to today’s students who are trying to make the world a better place through innovations and entrepreneurship,” Sacco said.

These climate-focused sessions will include the address from Nov. 5 keynote speaker Robin Thorne (BS chemical engineering ’97), who is president and CEO of environmental services and compliance company, CTI Environmental, Inc., as well as founder of DemoChicks, a nonprofit working to introduce girls to careers in demolition, constructions, engineering and architecture.

“Robin has a great story in terms of the sustainability and environmental impact part of what she does, and also in the social impact of introducing girls to those worlds and careers that they may not have considered previously,” Sacco said.

On Nov. 4, there will also be a virtual alumni panel on sustainable solutions in the energy, food and fashion industries. Tevere said that leaning more on alumni for programming was yet another lesson learned during the pandemic.

“For this event, we have more alumni participating than I think we’ve ever had before,” she said. “In almost everything that we’re doing, there’s a component of someone who feels really passionate about Drexel and is coming back because of their passion for Drexel.”

In this pre-pandemic photo, Chuck Sacco (left), associate dean for strategy and innovation and director of the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, presents prize winnings to the founders of startup company Phoodie.
In this pre-pandemic photo, Chuck Sacco (left), associate dean for strategy and innovation and director of the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, presents prize winnings to the founders of startup company Phoodie.

As for new interactive additions to the programming, the “Who Wants to be an Entrepreneur” game show segment where students can compete for prizes while judging for the Incubator Competition is another holdover from last year’s virtual event.

“During last year’s all-virtual StartUp Fest, we were concerned with keeping our audience engaged as everyone was so burned out from being on Zoom. So we introduced game show activities where students could compete with their knowledge of entrepreneurship to win prizes,” Tevere said. “It was such a success that we are adding a game show component this year to our live event: students can compete in the game for tiered cash prizes, and they can use lifelines like they do in [“Who Wants to Be a Millionare”]. This is going to be really fun.”

Additionally, in partnership with software company Graphite GTC based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the Close School had students from across the University submit app ideas, and one has been chosen to be built live in one day from the Nov. 4 Proving Ground event using Graphite GTC’s low code/no code offerings. The winning application was submitted by Steve Earth, a computer science PhD student, for his idea “GrabSome.” Earth describes GrabSome as a “shop-sharing app” aimed to save people time and gas by prompting neighbors to grab things for each other on store visits.

Earth didn’t intend to enter the competition, but when an email promoting the contest found its way to his inbox, he spent a two-hour free period between meetings submitting his entry. He was “extremely surprised” to find out he had won.

“Modesty aside, I actually knew the idea was a pretty good one. It had been sitting in the back of my brain for years,” Earth said. “But I also knew that there would be a lot of strong submissions from very experienced entrepreneur students. Their entries seem at least as good as mine, and so I'm very fortunate that committee chose my idea to pursue.”

In addition to having the app built, Earth has also won a $1,000 cash prize and $40,000 in client support services from Graphite GTC. The process of building the app will be used as a case study during the 11 a.m. Friday panel on why low code/no code development is a sustainable option.

“With low code solutions, the barrier to entry — to be able to develop an app with the technical skills required — gets a lot lower all the time,” Sacco said.

“One of the skills that our student entrepreneurs have lacked over the years is the ability to actually develop apps for their ideas,” added Tevere. “They’ve always needed to find someone to partner with to help them. Graphite Studio allows them to be more independent.”

So whether you’re coming to learn about entrepreneurship or tech trends such as this, or just want to discover what this annual, University-wide event is all about, students are encouraged to participate in the “great learning opportunity” that is StartUp Fest, Sacco said.

And though they’ve learned a lot from the pandemic and have been able to expand the festival’s virtual offerings, both Sacco and Tevere agree they’re excited to bring the entrepreneurship community together in-person once again this year.

“The idea with StartUp Fest is to help students realize the tools and resources already available to them, and to be inspired by the students that are already doing innovative things,” Sacco said. “Just show up. I always say that’s more than half of life is just showing up. You never know what’s going to happen.” 

“The energy of being in person and seeing how creative and smart these presentations are, it’s infectious,” added Tevere.