This past semester, I have been involved with an entrepreneurial competition called Y-Prize that is being held jointly by the Mack Center for Technological Innovation and the Weiss Tech House. Somewhat in contrast to the famous Google X-Prize, which calls for privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the moon (i.e. here is the problem Y, solve for the technology X), Y-Prize puts out Penn research from various different research labs (the theme this year is robotics), and asks student teams to solve for Y; in other words, find creative applications for already existing technology.
I first heard about Y-Prize because of the incredible quadrotor technology that has been in the news for a while now with Dr. Vijay Kumar’s TED talk and the KMel light and sound performance at Cannes this year, that was a part of the research from GRASP Labs that was being showcased. Initially, I was mainly just really excited to be closer to the technology and interact with the people directly involved in its development. I was also about two weeks into Management 235, the capstone M&T class taught by Dr. William Hamilton, in which students carry an idea through to market-ready implementation by writing a business plan. I immediately realized that doing the two together would be a great way to apply concepts from school to a very real business venture.
As the Phase 1 submission deadline inched closer, and my team delved deep into the constraints of the technology, we realized just how difficult of a problem it can be to solve for Y. I mean, one would think that the roboticists were the ones that had done the heavy lifting what with inventing flying robots, but when it actually gets down to finding an application without being able to alter what the technology can and can’t do, there are multitudes of factors to take into consideration, ranging from technicalities like limited battery life to completely different things like legal issues – in our case, FAA regulation on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). I’ve learned a ton about the UAV industry over the course of the past couple of months, and that’s been really amazing, but probably the biggest lesson of all has been that market testing is the most important thing an entrepreneur should engage in as he/she develops an idea. Creating products in a vacuum will inevitably come back to haunt you when you eventually decide to take your product to the market.
The concept of sudden death criteria is something that is drilled into us in MGMT 235 – like the name suggests, it’s a simple series of questions that if your venture idea cannot get past, you may as well call quits. It seems simple, but the reality is that so much is constantly changing in the external environment that what may today be a deal-breaker because it’s not legal, may tomorrow change in ways that will sprout entire industries.
I guess that’s why everyone talks about how important it is for an entrepreneurial team to be agile and able to respond to change. We’re through to the finals of Y-Prize, along with three other teams, but it hasn’t been without some pretty crazy turns. Ultimately, what I’ve learned is that you’ve got to try to strike a balance between the things you can control and the ones you can’t, but after that just hope for the best!