Success Story

  • Student founders with President Neeli Bendapudi standing in front of Invent Penn State banner

Students delve into entrepreneurship, innovation during Startup Week

Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC hosted a diverse selection of events across Penn State campuses that celebrated student innovation and entrepreneurship from March 20-24.

Centered around themes of startup accelerators, technology and venture capital, social impact, female entrepreneurs of color, and exploring Pennsylvania entrepreneurship, 129 events were hosted at 33 different venues throughout the commonwealth. More than 1,800 Penn State students and community members attended and participated in Startup Week events. Across the Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Network, seven innovation spaces held 18 virtual and in-person events throughout the week.

“Startup Week has brought entrepreneurship to every corner of Penn State’s footprint,” Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said during the Startup Week Student Recognition and Networking Reception. “We celebrate students who are future leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation — whether they continue to build their startups, pursue a career with another company, or choose to serve their communities through other avenues.”

During Startup Week, a technology and venture capital entrepreneur roundtable was moderated by Matt Brezina (co-founder of Sincerely and Xobni, ‘03) and featured Penn State alumni Tom Ayling (CEO of Gisual, ‘14), Eric Franchi (general partner at AperiamVentures, ‘98), Shevy Karbasi (co-founder of Moichor, ‘19), and Jason Warner (managing director of Redpoint Ventures, ‘99). The group shared insight on understanding and obtaining venture capital and building a startup.

“I think you can be really great at something if you focus on who you are and boil it down,” Ayling said. “You may have this big idea on this product you want to build. For us, it was important to realize that you can build something insanely valuable if you really focus down.”

Later in the week, a female entrepreneurs of color roundtable, moderated by Rahwa Teklai (senior vice president and market leader for PNC Private Bank in Central Pennsylvania, ‘98), shared insights on entrepreneurial experiences, challenges, and successes. Guest speakers for the panel included Ayeshah Abuelhiga (founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods), Kenya Crawford (therapist, racial equity consultant and clinical supervisor, ‘15), Prerana Dalal (director of Huge, Product Strategy & Management, ‘08), and Haley McClain Hill (CEO and founder of TORCH Warriorwear, ‘18).

“Being a woman of color in consumer products and raising capital is a very daunting place,” Abuelhiga said. “Only 1.7 percent of funds go to women of color. I think every challenge has an opportunity. It’s up to women of color to change the standard – because we’re always the ones to step up to the plate – for what financing a business looks like.”

Startup Week also provided students with several interactive, hands-on events throughout the week. Students and speakers alike had the opportunity to learn about the social impact of The Jared Box Project by making specialized care packages for hospitalized children. In addition, Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank and Penn State’s Maker Commons hosted an upcycling event where students created T-shirt brands and products out of donated clothing and fabric materials. Designs were modeled on a ‘runway’ in the LaunchBox and judged by guests Kathleen Tesnakis (founder of ekologic, Inc.) and Rebecca Force (MBA Graduate Fellow at Smeal College of Business). OriginLabs, Invent Penn State’s all-new prototyping and fabrication space, also held a hands-on event which taught individuals robot-assisted welding skills.

The weeklong celebration culminated with the Student Recognition and Networking Reception, where President Bendapudi honored winners and finalists of competitions and challenges, listed below.

Bardusch Family IdeaMakers Challenge ($7,000 in prizes): A challenge for early-stage ideas where student teams identify an important problem that can be solved using digital innovation.

  • Winner ($4,000): MEALLERGIES, a digital solution highlighting food allergens when ordering from restaurants by recommending safe menu items through personalized profiles that include dietary restrictions, preferences, and food allergies to prevent cross-contamination and allergic reactions.

Happy Valley LaunchBox FastTrack Accelerator Pitch Competition ($5,000 in prizes): Penn State and community startups learn how to avoid common startup mistakes, build actionable plans to launch their businesses and build solutions based on real customer feedback.

  • Winner ($3,000): CTFGuide, an ethical hacking, learning and competition platform for students and professionals.

Happy Valley Venture Capital Pitch Competition ($25,000 in prizes): Penn State student founders compete for more than $25,000 in non-equity prizes fully funded by the Penn State Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

  • Winner ($10,000): Alert Heart, a wireless monitoring device that directs cardiac arrest and alerts caretakers.

Inc.U Competition ($30,000 in prizes): Six undergraduate teams from across the commonwealth compete for a cash investment pool and are provided support designed to help their startups gain traction.

  • Winner ($15,000): Bindr, an all-inclusive dating app that provides a safe online space for bisexual individuals.

Nittany AI Challenge (up to $50,000 in prizes): An eight-month challenge where student teams move through the process of submitting ideas, creating a prototype and developing a minimum viable product.

  • Top three teams: CareerUP, which leverages the power of machine learning to create a career trajectory and exploration tool for underserved communities. PhysioAid, an application that facilitates and supports continued post-surgery physical therapy care through an innovative application of artificial intelligence. TransferMaster, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence solution to accelerate and reduce the cost of the transfer credit process at large universities.

Penn State Mont Alto LION Tank Pitch Competition ($4,000 in prizes): Provides top teams startup funding, access to Mont Alto LaunchBox and additional services to help them go to market.

  • Winner ($2,000): Vera, an artificial intelligence app that creates targeted resumes and improves interview outcomes.

About Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC

An integral part of the broader Invent Penn State initiative, Startup Week powered by PNC is a University-wide event that connects students with innovative alumni and pioneers who are achieving success in a variety of industries and disciplines. Throughout the week, students discover, explore, experience and celebrate entrepreneurship.

For more information on Startup Week, including a full schedule of events, visit Participants can engage with and follow Startup Week on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.