Many innovation competitions, like the the popular XPRIZE, challenge participants to find their own solutions to real-world problems. The Y-Prize Competition approaches innovation from a different angle — coming up with ways to innovate using technologies that someone else has created.
Kicking off its sixth season on September 19, the competition challenges student teams to propose commercial applications for emerging technologies developed by Penn professors. The idea for this interdisciplinary competition grew out of a similar concept that Professor David Hsu used in his engineering class.
Hsu approached the Mack Institute for help with expanding the class project into a campus-wide competition and a number of other sponsors now support the Y-Prize, including The School of Engineering and Applied Science, Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, the Penn Center for Innovation, and the IP Group.
The competition relies on the Engineering School to provide the technologies, while Wharton contributes a wide range of resources to help participants hone their business skills. All teams must include at least one current Penn student, but the number and university affiliation of additional team members is not limited. Individuals can enter as well, although teamwork is encouraged.
Having multiple perspectives from different academic vantages has proven to be an advantage in the Y-Prize Competition — the winners of the past years have all been interdisciplinary teams.
“We really want to encourage teams that span across different schools, because we need technology but also think about the business side of it. Innovation is really invention plus entrepreneurship,” said Saikat Chaudhuri, Executive Director of the Mack Institute.
Y-Prize hosts a number of events to encourage networking among students from across the University as well as an online document with potential teammates for those who can’t make it to one of the events.
Ideas for commercialization in all fields are welcome. Those that have made to the final rounds in years past have included applications in fields that range from cosmetics to beer-making to glaucoma treatment. In short, the possibilities are endless.
A Business Perspective
While the competition is Penn-wide, Wharton has given student teams a competitive edge in the Y-Prize Competition. All previous winners have had at least one team member or consultant from The Wharton School.
Wharton senior Rui Jing Jiang, W’18, a member of last year’s winning team, explained how her classes at Wharton helped her team create the winning plan. In addition to meeting one of her teammates in a strategic management class, she gained valuable skills in the classroom that she applied in the competition.
“Particularly in my strategy classes, I learned how to analyze the competitive landscape, how to think about company strategy, and a lot of that had to do with market interest strategy. Because we had some of that background, we were able to make a really robust first presentation that got us to the final round, and in the final round, we were able to do a robust competitive analysis,” she said.
Wharton provides many resources to all participating students. Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship gives all participating students access to extensive startup resources and opportunities, including Start Here Mondays and the Entrepreneurship EXPO, where Penn and Philadelphia entrepreneurship resources come together to help students navigate the entrepreneurship landscape.
The winner of the Y-Prize will be granted automatic entry into the Semifinals round of the Penn Wharton Startup Challenge, and given the opportunity to pitch live at the Penn Wharton Startup Showcase, as long as the team, venture, and application materials meet the eligibility requirements for the PWSC Semifinals round.
This Year’s Technologies
This year’s competition features two nano-scale technologies developed by Penn Engineering faculty: nanotribological printing and carbon nanopipettes. At the kick-off event, Professors Robert Carpick and Haim Bau introduced their inventions to prospective participants.
Nanotribological printing essentially means additive manufacturing at the nanoscale. Prof. Carpick, who heads the development of this technology, revealed that it was discovered by accident.
He explained that his lab was studying the properties of engine oil additives when they discovered that the molecules could be trapped and flattened to produce a thin film that could be layered to print 3D objects. Examples of potential applications of nanotribological printing include, but are not limited to, producing components for flexible electronics or thermal coatings.
Prof. Bau’s carbon nanopipettes offer a promising way to inject liquids into cells and penetrate their nuclei. Due to the material of the pipettes, it is also possible to electrically detect when the pipette enters the cell or its nucleus. This technology has many possible applications in the study of cell biology.
The competition is now officially open — initial submissions are due on November 5, 2017. On November 21, the competition will announce the finalists who will pitch their ideas at the Grand Finale on January 30 to an audience and a panel of judges selected from the local innovation community. The winning team will receive the $10,000 Grand Prize.
— Elis Pill, C’19
Posted: September 28, 2017