The spring 2020 Penn I-Corps training was a success despite the logistical challenges faced by the teams and I-Corps program staff due to COVID-19.
The cohort got underway right when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the Penn campus closing. In previous sessions, each of the I-Corps teams would meet in person over five weeks to share ideas and practice skills as a group. With the campus closing, the training was pushed back a few weeks and was quickly converted to 100% virtual. Of the 10 teams that were originally accepted to the cohort, one dropped off because of COVID-related activities.
Five of the teams were life-science related, led by faculty, doctoral students, and post-docs. The remaining four teams were led by MBA and undergraduate students and their ideas spanned various topic areas. The course was co-taught by Tomás Isakowitz, Ph.D., manager of Penn I-Corps, and Elizabeth Mazahari, Managing Director at TEDCO Maryland Venture Fund.
The next I-Corps program is tentatively scheduled for the summer 2020.
Adjusting to an online I-Corps
Overall, the teams proved to be flexible under pressure, and willing to continue to test their business ideas, despite the non-ideal conditions.
“We took advantage of the ability to break out into separate sessions to hold concurrent activities with a smaller number of participants to encourage interaction. In addition, we found it easier to include guest speakers because the virtual delivery removes the barrier of coordinating physical locations. An added benefit was the ability to record all sessions thereby enabling participants to review their own presentations and keep a record for Penn I-Corps”, said Tomás Isakowitz.
Generating interactive discussions and encouraging active participation, however, proved to be challenging. Tomás is already planning new activities for the next iteration that will incentivize and facilitate team-to-team interactions.
Screenshot of a video session
What teams learned
The I-Corps program covers how to articulate actionable Value Propositions for each team’s idea. This starts with a clear definition of:
1. the problem they address;
2. the customers that are envisioned to purchase their solutions; and
3. the advantages of these solutions.
The goal is for the teams to delve into product-market fit, i.e., does anyone care sufficiently about the problems the teams are addressing to adopt their solutions? To support this effect, I-Corps teaches the teams to conduct Customer Discovery by reaching out directly to customers and interviewing them. During the course, teams try to conduct 20 interviews and modify their ideas based on the feedback received.
Conducting virtual interviews for the non-medical teams turned out to be simpler, because many of their customers had spare time during the pandemic. Alternatively, the medical device teams faced a difficult challenge to get in touch with health care providers, many of whom were tackling COVID-19. Except for one team, every team obtained valuable insights.
Getting to know other entrepreneurs
The third session consisted of a panel composed of key stakeholders in the Philadelphia entrepreneurial ecosystem who discussed their experiences with startups. Brett Topche, Managing Director at Red & Blue Ventures and Andrew Hamilton, Partner at Morgan Lewis provided insights into fund-raising, approaching and selecting investors, structuring the startups as ongoing concerns, and thinking about equity structures. It was moderated by Laurie Actman from PCI.
Two participants from previous cohorts were guest lecturers covering how I-Corps impacted the development of their ideas:
Nikil Rajav(Fall 2019 cohort) is the founder of InventXYZ – a provider of maker spaces and related-services to school districts. Nikil explained how by requiring interviews, I-Corps led to letters of intent from key customers. Nikil went to to become the President Innovation Prize recipient for 2020, Penn’s highly coveted opportunity for one graduating senior.
Nicola Mason, (Fall 2018 cohort) is an endowed Chair Professors within the Department of Clinical Sciences and Advanced Medicine and Associate Professor of Medicine & Pathobiology at Penn Vet. Dr. Mason is the founder of Vetigenic – a biotech startup company that utilizes its canine single chain variable fragment (scFv) phage display platform to generate validated, antigen-specific canine antibody fragments for use in comparative oncology research and therapeutic and diagnostic applications in veterinary health care. Dr. Mason discussed how her experience at Penn I-Corps enabled her team to successfully complete the National NIH I-Corps program, which provided $50,000 in funding to develop her business.
Meet the teams
Anxiety Aid is an app that reduces customers’ academic anxiety and increases their study time by allowing them to learn and practice anxiety management skills, coaching them to transform anxiety into effective action, and tracking their anxiety and procrastination levels.
Dyslequity is a gamified pre-k through second-grade literacy screener that helps to identify students at risk of having difficulties with reading and writing.
Keep.id: Those experiencing homelessness often lack identification, but most government aid, job, and housing applications require an ID. The Keep.id app stores ID copies online for access at libraries and by homeless service agencies. Once a homeless individual receives a new ID, it is uploaded to the app and copies can be printed, used in government aid forms, and sent to agencies who need the IDs are part of their processes. https://keep.id
MAR Designs is developing a novel orthosis for pediatric cerebral palsy which is comfortable and easy to use, improving compliance and outcomes. The orthosis slowly and gradually moves the affected joint to the desired position with an actuator that applies the desired stretch. This is especially important in pediatric care as it enables stretching while the patient sleeps. For more about MAR Designs.
MXtrode Bioelectronics: Our technology is a low-cost EEG electrode that records high-quality EEG signals without requiring the use of conductive gels. This enables simpler and faster EEG set-up and also provides more stable long-term signals.
OxyTech: In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is a highly sensitive process that requires careful control of the environment for best outcomes. Control of oxygen has been shown to improve the effectiveness of the procedure by 15%. We provide a safe all-in-one solution for the control and real-time monitoring of oxygen concentration during the critical stages of the IVF cycle.
SHOWCASE is a vending machine network that serves as a platform for brands to exchange products for insights from users. We reinvent the use of vending machines as automated retail, and leverage the physical footprint they offer to reach a previously unreachable consumer.
Skriva is an affordable web application that helps international students who are looking to enter STEM careers and university programs easily understand technical words. Unlike traditional tutors or generic grammar editing tools, our user-friendly interface speeds up understanding and application of technical word use and context by ~50%, and the subscription is a financially accessible at just $25 a month.
UroGenie: Uroflowmetry (the measurement of urinary flow rates) is the most common tool to evaluate lower urinary tract function. Current methods are time-consuming, use paper records, and are limited to the office. We offer a new system that can be used on any toilet in the office or home and will transmit the data wirelessly into the electronic medical record.