Venture Lab: The ‘Start Here’ Button for Student Entrepreneurs

An entrepreneurial spirit pushes new and innovative ideas into existence, but it can be a hard path to pursue without a roadmap. Fortunately for students at Penn, there is a clear “start here” button at the University’s Venture Lab.

Venture Lab, a collaboration across Wharton, Penn Engineering and the Weitzman School of Design, pulls from more than 50 years of work and guidance from the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship program. After its inception in 2020, Venture Lab found a home in Tangen Hall, and has become home to over 20 programs and five unique pathways for all Penn students and alumni getting started in entrepreneurship.

“The entrepreneurial approach benefits both those who found their own companies and those navigating other career paths,” says Lori Rosenkopf, Simon and Midge Palley Professor in Wharton’s Management Department, Wharton’s Faculty Director for Venture Lab, and the Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. “We teach students how to identify and understand real problems, come up with possible solutions, test those solutions, be responsive to feedback and criticism and be empathetic to their audience, skills applicable to any profession.”

One of the first ways to get involved in Venture Lab is to join their workshops on everything from design thinking to how to be a CEO led by faculty across the university. Students then have the option of joining a pathway or diving into the Startup Challenge, to compete for a slice of more than $300,000 in startup funds.

“This is a space to collaborate and be creative,” says Rosenkopf. “Venture Lab does not take a stake in students’ work; we are here for educational purposes. This allows students to feel free to explore and go through the important journey of trial and error. Through each iteration of the work they produce here, students have access to experts across business, engineering, and design.”

Venture Lab is building the connective tissue across schools at Penn to transform classroom-based knowledge into real-world problem solving and marketable ideas. Many of those ideas receive startup funds, and this year Venture Lab has $1.5 million dedicated to those projects.

“One of our flagship programs is the Venture Initiation Program, or VIP,” says Jeffrey Babin, Professor of Practice and Associate Director of Engineering Entrepreneurship and Venture Lab’s Engineering Faculty Director. “We have over 500 students in the VIP community, about a dozen of them enter the incubator program, and from there, a handful join the accelerator program where they receive funding to take their idea and run with it. My role is guiding the students through this pipeline and helping their ideas get to venture levels.”

Wherever students are in their own pipeline, they are the heart of Venture Lab. Facilities were designed with their needs in mind, especially the need to collaborate.

“The Tangen Hall is our physical beacon for all students at Penn,” says Trang Pham, Venture Lab’s Executive Director. “Bringing students together physically in Tangen Hall for courses, labs or social events sparks conversations and collaborations across schools that turn into some of the best startups.”

One such startup was born through a collaboration between Wharton and Penn Engineering students. Rui Jing Jiang, Brandon Kao and Adarsh Battu founded Avisi Technologies in 2017. They are working on an ultrathin implant to treat glaucoma using nanotechnology developed in the lab of Penn Engineering’s Igor Bargatin, Associate Professor in MEAM. Another was born through the collaboration of students in Penn Engineering and Design. Their product, InvenTABLE is a kid-safe cardboard cutter which has already raised over $1 million on Kickstarter. So, how did they turn their ideas into real products?

“We took advantage of as many resources at Penn as we could,” says Kausi Raman, Co-founder and CEO of InvenTABLE and Designer in Residence at Penn Engineering. “We applied for and received all three rounds of the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund, we participated in the Startup Challenge and made it to the semifinals, we were a part of VIP, and then launched our product on Kickstarter. Outside of raising the funds to bring our product to the market, we developed our business plan and launch strategy in Professor Babin’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Lab course and worked with the Detkin IP Law Clinic to understand our patent options.” 

InvenTABLE’s founders, Kausi Raman and Max Liechty, hold carboard airplanes made from the help of their product.

Other notable startups on their way to success showcase creativity and perseverance. Orble Tea is a team of Penn Engineers who are designing a boba tea vending machine that is installable anywhere and makes a boba tea almost instantly. ToxiSense started as an idea in the eighth-grade brain of founder Aravind Krishnan, third-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School, when he took a class trip to the beach.

“I learned about how horseshoe crabs’ blood was used for detecting bacterial endotoxins in pharmaceuticals and wondered why there wasn’t a better, more humane way to test for these toxins,” says Krishnan. “I set out to find a plant that would react to the toxins and how I might turn that reaction into a visible one. The journey from research all the way to prototyping the current plant-based biosensor that fluoresces when in the presence of these toxins has been six years in the making, and I’ve been able to get here quickly thanks to the programs and mentorship at Venture Lab.”

In addition to the thoughtfully crafted programs and one-on-one mentorship, students at Venture Lab have access to some of the most hands-on classes at Penn to make and test their products. 

“In my course, ‘How to Make Things,’ I help students make their ideas tangible,” says Taylor Caputo, Director of Engineering Studios. “I use my own work, mostly jewelry, as a demo, and teach students how to apply certain crafting techniques to create their own products. I’ve seen students make gifts for their friends, bags out of biomaterials and most recently, Halloween costumes. The maker space is such a fun environment and the classes are designed to have a very low barrier to entry to encourage any student to become a maker and define for themselves what it means to be an engineer.”  

Students at the Maker’s Market sell handmade products designed and manufactured in Caputo’s “How to Make Things” course.

In today’s society, we need more creative engineers to solve our problems, and while entrepreneurship has been around for hundreds of years, it has not always been a welcomed career path.

“As a child of immigrants, I watched my parents create their own jobs because no one would hire them,” says Pham. “At that time, starting your own business was not considered a legitimate career. But now, we need new solutions outside of field-specific silos, and you can’t build problem-solving widgets that change the world without the right kind of business mindset.”

The entrepreneurship movement and spaces are becoming more mainstream, and Venture Lab is at the forefront of both. 

Venture Lab is the largest university center for student entrepreneurship in the world at 68,000 square feet,” says Babin. “It’s exciting to have the investment in our facilities, but in the end, while success is enabled by this environment, the ideas and businesses are completely driven by our amazing students.”

Students interested in participating in the 2024 Venture Lab Startup Challenge can use this link to learn more and apply by January 31, 2024.