Invent Penn State’s 2020 Summer Founders program, a 13-week student startup accelerator, wrapped up Aug. 12 in a virtual showcase after funding seven student-startup teams with $15,000 each to work on their startup, nonprofit, or social good full time over the summer. The program also matched teams with resources and entrepreneurial experts who provided mentorship.
Typically, teams work full time out of Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, meeting regularly face-to-face, but due to COVID-19, the program shifted from in-person to virtual.
The seven startups that were selected from more than 50 applications include:
- Girls Code the World is a domestic nonprofit corporation that provides opportunities for girls and women of all ages to have opportunities to engage with STEM through a series of specialized educational programs and extended mentorships. Girls Code the World empowers girls not only to enter the STEM field but also to shape the field as leaders. The startup is led by Sydney Gibbard a sophomore biomedical engineering and pre-medical sciences student in Penn State’s College of Engineering and Mina Shokoufandeh, a sophomore student at Tufts University studying biology, biomedical sciences, and French.
- Xora enables richer interactions between humans and the world around us through simplified creation of augmented/virtual reality experiences. Its platform reduces the barriers to entry and provides tech-minded creators with the tools to augment our physical world. The startup is led by Penn State students Greg Costeas, who is a junior studying human centered design and development in Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and Royce D’Souza, a junior studying philosophy in the College of the Liberal Arts and Qualimetric data engineering in the College of Engineering.
- teamSTAT’s customizable mobile app improves compliance of physical therapy patients in their at-home exercise routines by clarifying often confusing paper printouts and helping patients better understand incremental progress they are making. Physical therapists can define individualized workouts for their patients, track daily exercises, and clarify issues with patients via the direct messaging system. Daily reminders and progress indicators from the app motivate patients to stick to their physical therapy routine. The startup is led by Emily Robinson, a junior studying biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering.
- Gage makes classroom student behavior observation easy and preparing student data even easier. By offering behavior observation that reflects the modern classroom’s workflow, it enables teachers to show what is going on in their classes, rather than just telling them. The team is led by Glenn Hubbard, a sophomore studying economics and math in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, and Christian Trafford, a sophomore studying computer science in the College of Engineering.
- Vybrnt’s mission is to create a social networking platform that uses artificial intelligence to provide resources and a greater sense of community for underrepresented students. Its diverse, student-led team listens to underrepresented groups about what they need in order to take advantage of opportunities provided by their college community and makes that information readily available in one user-friendly platform. The startup team consists of Joel Sakyi, a 2020 graduate from the College of Information Sciences and Technology; Christian Medford (‘22), who is studying business psychology in the College of Liberal Arts; Amalendu Bokil, a sophomore studying computer science in the College of Engineering; and Bubune Owusu, a junior studying electrical engineering in the College of Engineering.
- Vintage Closet sells vintage Penn State clothing and nostalgic items to students, alumni, and fans through their Instagram account and e-commerce platform. The startup is led by Zac Cowell, a 2020 graduate of Penn State’s Environmental Resource Management program in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
- 3D Concrete Printing has combined research and engineering to develop an autonomous construction system, namely, a concrete printing system. This system will reduce labor costs and job setup times by eliminating the need for form work of concrete structures. The effort is being led by Penn State graduate student Nate Watson, a 2020 graduate studying additive manufacturing and design in the College of Engineering.
“We had more applications this year than ever, from a wider group of people, and with more diversity in terms of who is applying, and we’re seeing an uptick in the scalability and viability of the startup ideas,” Erickson said. “These teams have impressed me in terms of how fast they’ve been able to move through the program milestones focused on desirability, feasibility and viability. They’ve been able to move very quickly.”
While adapting the Summer Founders to a virtual format, Erickson wanted to replicate the usual in-person ‘happy collisions’ and ‘drive-by mentoring’ as closely as possible. Erickson and Ben Nason, Happy Valley LaunchBox’s idea catalyst, did this by setting up regular weekly programming, a shared group calendar, and an internal communications platform so everyone could easily stay connected remotely.
Erickson said they broke down the days of the week into different events and resource offerings for the teams. For example, every Monday and Friday were known as Drive-By Mondays and Fridays, which are optional open office hours hosted on Zoom with Erickson and Nason for teams to ask questions or discuss any aspects of their startup. They also had Learn Something Wednesdays for teams to either hear a guest speaker cover a specific topic such as investing, or to work on a startup milestone such as figuring out a value proposition. Hang Out Thursdays are meant to be fun opportunities for teams to get to know each other and play virtual games, watch a movie together, or just have open conversations.
When Mina Shokoufandeh and Sydney Gibbard applied to Summer Founders in February, they weren’t expecting to be part of the first virtual Summer Founders program. But they also weren’t expecting to pivot Girls Code the World to be a virtual event either.
“When we heard that we would have to explore using a virtual platform this summer, we were worried that we would have to cancel our programming,” Gibbard, a sophomore in the Penn State Schreyer Honors College, said. “However, being a part of Summer Founders allowed us to devote a lot of time we wouldn’t have had otherwise to redevelop our curriculum and prepare to host a hands-on virtual program.”
Girls Code the World is a nonprofit that provides educational programming and mentorship for young girls in STEM-related fields. Originally designed as an in-person summer camp program, Girls Code the World has taken on a new virtual model consisting of a variety of online lessons, pre-recorded videos for students to watch and build along, and “MakerBoxes” that are sent to students containing materials for the program and fun activities to do on their own.
“Having direct access to free resources such as the Entrepreneur Assistance Law Clinic and the Intellectual Property Law Clinic has been invaluable,” Shokoufandeh, Girls Code the World co-founder and sophomore at Tufts University, said. “Summer Founders has helped us define our mission and who we are, as well as market ourselves to our target audiences, which will be very important for us as we grow and move forward.”
2020 Summer Founders is a signature program of Invent Penn State and is provided in partnership with Happy Valley LaunchBox. Startup funding is made possible through the donations of successful alumni entrepreneurs interested in supporting new student ventures.
For more information about the program, visit invent.psu.edu/program/summer-founders.
For more information about Happy Valley LaunchBox visit LaunchBox.psu.edu.
To view more Penn State affiliated startups, visit StartupNavigator.psu.edu