How to Start a Startup @ Penn

By: David Ongchoco, Penn ‘18

While the University of Pennsylvania is known to be a powerhouse in the world of Wall Street, Penn is also one of the leading universities when it comes to producing startup founders. In fact, in the latest PitchBook report, Penn ranked 5th for most venture-backed startups in the undergraduate level and 3rd in the MBA level. Penn graduates have gone on to start companies like Paypal, SpaceX, Warby Parker, Jet.com, and many more.

At Dorm Room Fund, our goal is to support student founders so we decided to write this guide to help YOU navigate the different startup resources at Penn. This guide is composed of three main parts Part 1: Getting Started, Part 2: Starting Up, Part 3: Launch.

Part 1 — Getting Started

“If you have a dream, you can spend a lifetime studying and planning and getting ready for it. What you should be doing is getting started” — Drew Houston, Dropbox Co-founder & CEO

Coming into Penn, it can be overwhelming to navigate all the startup resources out there. Luckily, a few Google searches on the Philadelphia and Penn startup scene should lead you to the websites of Penn-Wharton Entrepreneurship, Technical.ly Philly, and Philly Startup Leaders. These three resources are generally the best way to get familiar with the Philadelphia startup scene.

For students who want to start diving into their school’s startup scene, campus organizations are usually the best way to get started. Below are the different campus organizations, classes and events that can get you started with your startup journey:

Campus Organizations

Penn also has a lot of different on campus organizations that host different speakers events and mixers that allow you to meet students who are also interested in startups and technology including:

  • Weiss Tech House— This club is one of the biggest tech and entrepreneurship clubs on campus. They have members who invest in startups through the Innovation Fund and members who help run one of the biggest tech startup competitions on campus, Pennvention.
  • Wharton Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Club — This club mostly holds speaker events, bringing in entrepreneurs to come and share their story.
  • Tech Entrepreneurship Club — This club holds a variety of workshops and speaker events, while also co-hosting the Penn Innovation Conference with Weiss Tech House.
  • YouthHack Philadelphia — This is the Philadelphia chapter of international startup organization that runs a freshman program, startup studio and venture accelerator.
  • Wharton eClub (MBA entrep club) — This club is the entrepreneurship club for MBA students and holds eMonday lunches for its members.
  • Wharton Innovation & Design — This is the graduate club focused on all things design thinking and product design. They also host design challenges and product hackathons.
  • Founders Club — The Founders Club listserv is very valuable resource where a lot of alumni Penn founders willingly reply to questions student founders have.

You also have more tech oriented clubs and events like the Dining Philosophers and PennApps which is a great way to meet potential tech cofounders and hack on quick projects that may just turn into a startup.

Entrepreneurship Classes

For those interested in learning more about the process of starting a startup in a more academic setting, Penn also offers a variety of different classes you could look into:

  • The Wharton School — This school offers a lot of useful classes for aspiring student founders. In particular, the MGMT department offers various entrepreneurship classes from entrepreneurial marketing (MGMT241) to venture initiation (MGMT231) to venture capital (MGMT264).
  • School of Engineering & Applied Sciences — This school offers special half-credit classes in Python (CIS192), Javascript (CIS197), Ruby & Rails (CIS196) and IOS App Development (CIS195) that student founders may find useful in gaining the skills to build your first prototype. Students have also found the Engineering Entrepreneurship (EAS545 & EAS546) classes to be useful in learning how to build a startup.

Some professors like Kartik Hosanagar, Ethan Mollick, David Bell and Jeffrey Babin have also been known for investing in and advising Penn founders. This alone is good reason for you to take classes taught by these professors.

Competitions

Competitions are a great way to get involved in the startup scene while also being forced to work on an idea and really think it through given the constraints of the competition. It’s also a great way to meet potential co-founders and get immediate feedback on your idea.

  • Penn-Wharton Startup Challenge — One of the biggest business plan competitions in Philadelphia; Winners receive cash prizes, legal resources, mentorship, etc. All you need? A business plan.
  • Pennvention — This competition has a focus on startups and organizations with a technological innovation.
  • AppIt Up — Students can pitch their app ideas; Winners get the technical support in order to turn their app idea into a reality.
  • PennApps — The world’s oldest (and possibly largest) university hackathon. Enough said.
  • Y Prize — Want to work on cutting edge technology? Propose business applications for some of the most innovative solutions
  • Hult Prize — This international social entrepreneurship competition can be your road to $1M and an opportunity to meet Bill Clinton in the global finals.

Part 2 — Starting up

“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late” — Reid Hoffman, Linkedin Co-founder

At this point of the guide, you’ve gone to a couple of startup events, met a couple of potential founders and have a few ideas you’re thinking about pursuing. Don’t fret, there are multiple Penn incubators and accelerators for early stage ideas and funding grants for students to build their MVP.

Incubator & Accelerator Programs

While the top accelerator programs in the country like Y Combinator, 500 Startups, TechStars, Dreamit Ventures and the like require you to be working on your startup full time, Penn students have access to a couple of campus accelerators tailored to helping student founders.

  • Penn-Wharton Venture Initiation Program— Wharton Entrepreneurship’s incubator and accelerator program. Specifically, there’s VIP-C which is focused on earlier stage startups and VIP-X focused on startups with growing traction.
  • PennApps Accelerator— The accelerator arm of PennApps. They give up to $1000 grants as well to help startups get started with their MVP.
  • Weiss Labs — Weiss Tech House’s 5-week bootcamp focused on learning and mentorship.
  • YouthHack Ventures — YouthHack Philadelphia’s venture accelerator program that runs for 10-weeks and gives you access to their global network.
  • Penn I-Corps Program— This accelerator program by the Penn Center for Innovation is focused on commercializing research being done at Penn and turning them into startups.
  • Penn HealthX Accelerator— This is a healthcare accelerator run by the Penn HealthX organization founded to provide medical students with opportunities to explore, experience and contribute to innovation in healthcare.

How do you choose which program to go through? Talk to the people running the program! Each program offers their own resources and benefits, and the only way to know which one is the best fit for you and your startup is to learn more about what they offer. Most of these accelerators offer you mentorship and the accountability you need to hit milestones each week, funding, workshops and educational resources, and a community of other startup founders.

Early Funding Sources

Key to any fast-growing student startup is having the capital to get things started. Luckily, Penn has a variety of funding sources you can take advantage of including:

  • Penn-Wharton Innovation Fund— This is for early stage ideas with the goal of helping founders prototype and get started with their venture. They grant up to $1000.
  • Penn-Wharton Summer Venture Award — The Wharton Venture Award awards $10,000 to juniors who decide to spend their last summer working on their venture.
  • Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund — They give out $500 — $1000 grants for student-run startups. Accepted teams also get access to legal, technical and business mentoring resources as well.
  • Jerome Fisher M&T Fund — This fund run by M&T students gives out $1000 — $5000 grants to student-run startups.

Depending on the stage you are in, these different fundraising sources should help you get started with your startup as a student. All these organizations are there with the goal of serving student founders so don’t be afraid to approach them because they are students too and understand your needs.

Part 3 — Launch

“Our overnight success took 1000 days” — Brian Chesky, AirBnb Co-founder

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the point where you’ve validated your idea. At this point, you’re ready to go from your beta to launch. You‘ve found your tribe, your first 100 users. You’ve made your first few sales on your website, and through all this, you’ve experienced both the startup high and the startup low.

To get to this point, you’ve probably spent a few all nighters with your team in Huntsman Hall, while downing a few cans of Redbull and a handful of Insomnia cookies. You now want to take your startup to the next level whether if it’s through raising your angel round or joining a startup accelerator.

Angel Investing & Pre-Seed Funds:

  • Dorm Room Fund — Backed by First-Round Capital, DRF partners have gone on to fund some of Penn’s most successful student startups, including Firefly, their first exit. Funding is $20k convertible note.
  • Red and Blue Ventures — This venture capital firm is dedicated to supporting founders from Penn.
  • StartupPHL Fund — Provides angel and seed stage investments to Philadelphia based startups.
  • Robinhood Ventures— This is an angel investing group based in Philadelphia.

Fulltime Accelerators:

I won’t go into much detail here aside from the fact that just around 34th and Market Street is Dreamit Ventures, a local startup accelerator with edtech and healthcare focused programs. Other Penn founders have also gone on to do accelerators like Y Combinator, 500 Startups, TechStars, etc.


Conclusion — College is the best time to startup

Summing it all up, if there’s one thing I’d like to leave you with: college is the best time to start a company. While starting a company in college is one of the hardest things one could do (I mean even outside college, the success rate for startups is really small), there’s so much you can learn in the process of doing so.

You are surrounded by hundreds of other students, who could become your potential cofounders. You have access to some of the smartest and most accomplished faculty and staff who have invaluable insights, research and advice to help you navigate the challenges you face. Finally, you have the cushion to make mistakes because you are a student, and your job is to make mistakes now while the stakes aren’t as high when you’re older and you have a job and/or family.

Like Mark Cuban said during his visit at Penn last year, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fail, because you only have to be right once.” You never know, that startup idea in your head right now may just be the next Facebook.


Special thanks to Josh Lee, Jeff Ellington, Nigel Coelho, Rei Wang and the rest of the DRF team for going through various drafts and helping make this post happen. Thanks to Jeff Wang as well for the great work on the graphics.

If there’s anything we missed that you think should be included in this guide, please feel free to send an email to dongchoco@dormroomfund.com.

Dorm Room Fund is dedicated to supporting student founders across the country and helping them reach new heights. Working on a startup? Get in touch on twitter or here. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with DRF, signup for our newsletter here.