Drexel University students come together regularly and for a multitude of reasons — to support a University endeavor or a community initiative, to attend a commencement ceremony or a basketball game.
On Nov. 7–8 for the fifth year in a row, they came together to celebrate an extraordinary showcasing of their entrepreneurship.
Startup Fest is the University’s biggest entrepreneurship event, hosted annually by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship. Dozens of student business hopefuls from a variety of majors and backgrounds, as well as a few members of Drexel’s staff, participated in the planned events. Hundreds of supporters also stopped by Behrakis Grand Hall to cheer them on or learn more about Drexel’s robust entrepreneurial community.
“Whether you’re here at Startup Fest as a competitor, to support your friends here, or just to come and see what’s happening, you can feel the energy in the room,” said Donna De Carolis, PhD, dean of the Close School of Entrepreneurship, when addressing attendees. “More importantly, you can feel the power. You can feel the power that’s wrapped up in starting something. You can feel the power that leads to confidence and skill and knowledge.”
On day one, attendees were treated to an Entrepreneur Expo & Opportunity Fair represented by the student start-ups competing in events, other student groups and representatives from the event’s sponsors and the Philadelphia entrepreneurship community at large. Students also participated in the first round of the Student Idea Pitch Competition, lining up in front of tables of Close School-affiliated judges with just two minutes to present their ideas — some even kneeling down to be eye-level with the judges and be heard over the din of the room.
Right after her fast pitch, Lindsey Smith, a second-year entrepreneurship and innovation student, rushed back to her table to continue promoting Fashion Buddy, an app where users can post or rate outfits in a way that is positive and judgement-free. Smith said the day’s events were very motivational for her.
“The feedback from walking around today is great and there are so many people here, so I’m loving that,” she said. “It gives me the motivation to actually go for it and not just think about it, so I really loved that and I also love the people-to-people kind of engagement all around.”
Evan Ehlers, a fifth-year entrepreneurship and innovation major promoting his non-profit Sharing Excess, which allows students to donated their unused meal swipes to those in need, agreed that Startup Fest was a great event for connecting with people, telling his story and sharing his passion for this cause.
“It’s like something you would see out in Silicon Valley, where you’d have to be working for years and networking with hundreds of people to get to something like this,” he said of the event, “whereas here, we’re at a University that is prioritizing entrepreneurship and is allowing students to come out here and practice their pitches.”
For students outside of the Close School, the openness and ease of the event were both surprising and inviting. Griffin Mallas, a first-year psychology graduate student, said he signed up for the fast pitch competition just 20 minutes before the event after he heard about it from a friend. He was there to promote his cryptocurrency hedge fund, Hypernova Capitol, and viewed participating in Startup Fest as great practice for pitching his business.
“I think one of the great things about entrepreneurship is that you don’t have to have a specific background in something,” Mallas said. “Entrepreneurship is something I’ve always been extremely interested in, something I want to do in the future even though I’ve studied philosophy and psychology.”
The big pitch of the event was the focus of day two, when students participating in the Baiada Institute Incubator Competition for a total of $25,000 in cash prizes presented their ideas in both a preliminary and a final round. Out of the 25 individuals or teams competing, 20 were represented by students outside of the Close School, and just five plus one wild card moved on to the final round on the evening of Nov. 8. The judges for this flagship event included presidents and partners of five regional businesses, like Mel Baiada, lead benefactor for the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship.
Adit Gupta, a fifth-year software engineering student, presented his VyB app in both the preliminary and final rounds. VyB is an online rating platform that would consolidate websites like Yelp and Foursquare by making offerings real-time, measurable and social.
Gupta said he’s glad that the Close School puts on events like Startup Fest, as it helps the entrepreneurship community at Drexel grow.
“Entrepreneurship is finding a problem that the community faces, and finding the solution and just trying to mitigate that problem,” Gupta said. “Drexel has been amazing at trying to figure out how to make the community more engaging. How can we help the problems to be solved in the community?”
Even though VyB Technologies LLC did not end up taking home the grand prize, it did win the “Crowd Favorite Startup” title with more than 200 votes from the audience. Gupta said the journey provided by the competition is about more than just winning or losing.
“It’s about how much can we learn and how much can we help other people learn,” he said.
The team who went home with the grand prize — including $12,500 toward funding their business and a spot in the Baiada Incubator — was Outland Analytics, a company using acoustic sensing devices to help end illegal logging by providing rapid alerts of this illegal activity in remote areas. Sophomore mechanical engineering student Elliot Richards started the company with his friend Edward Buckler of Stony Brook University in high school after growing up with a forestry professor grandfather and working on his family’s Catskill-Mountains tree farm.
“All of that has kind of led to my interest in conserving outdoor areas and making sure we really go about natural resource management in a responsible way,” Richards said.
With the prize money, Outland Analytics will first work with the U.S. Forest Service to test their product in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and in the long-term will finalize their minimum viable product. Richards said making “leaps and bounds” with their company while also being full-time college students is both difficult and exhilarating.
“We now have a slew of technical development partners, and everything is just accelerating forward,” he said. “So it’s a constant balance to keep all of those things aligned and prioritized and push it forward while pursuing challenging, technical degrees.”
The team is also looking forward to joining the Baiada Incubator, which will not only offer them the physical space to grow their company, but also the opportunity to grow within the University’s entrepreneurial community.
“To come in as a freshman and have no one on campus know what Outland Analytics is and to now get this stamp of approval and be inducted into the incubator, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “To have people recognize us and also be willing to support us is just incredibly exciting. We can grow from the resources that are available and we’re so happy to be able to do that as part of the Drexel community.”
To see the full list of Startup Fest 2018 winners, click here.