It only takes two words to stop you in your tracks: “Shots fired!”
You don’t know who or where exactly. Stunned, you hesitate with disbelief. As the crackling nears, your heart races and survival instinct kicks into gear. In a blur, you lower your head and race alongside others to safety. Looking back, you can only pray for those left behind. They simply found themselves in the wrong spot at the wrong moment. The act was unimaginable. How could anyone stop it?
REAL TIME RESPONSE TO GUN VIOLENCE
Two MBAs may have an answer. In 2018, Sonny Tai and Ben Ziomek, graduates of the University of Chicago’s Booth School, launched Aegis AI. In the nutshell, their artificial intelligence software turns existing security cameras into smart cameras that can detect guns. As a result, says Ziomek, companies can head off potential gun violence – “without invading privacy.”
Sound too good to be true? The investment community loves the concept. Thus far, venture capital firms like Bling Capital and Tensility have poured over $2.2 million dollars into Aegis AI, which has produced a 100% success rate in 50 tests. At the same time, the firm has installed its AI solution into hundreds of cameras covering schools, entertainment venues, and offices. Together, the founders applied their backgrounds in military service and system design to develop the concept. However, it was business school that enabled them to turn it into a venture.
“Booth allowed me to expand my experience working with startups at Microsoft to sit on both sides of the table,” Ziomek writes. “I spent the first year of my MBA working part-time in venture capital, giving me a great perspective on how investors evaluate startups. Then in my second year, I transitioned to working on Aegis, giving me practical experience both investing in startups and seeking investment that allowed me to close a seed round before I completed my MBA.”
ENTREPRENEURSHIP NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
These days, MBA graduates like Ziomek and Tai are streaming into entrepreneurship. At the Booth School alone, two-thirds of 2019 graduates counted entrepreneurship among their academic concentrations, up from half just eight years ago. For many, launching a startup embodies the frontier ideal of taking charge of your destiny. Their role models have transformed into bootstrappers who turn industries inside-out with a mix of pluck and endurance. This has only been amplified by Millennials, who revel in challenging convention and testing limits. For MBAs, startups have become a means to pursue social good, a platform to connect resources and create communities.
It is a notion that is as romantic as it is risky, says Rice University’s Vinay Acharya, whose Wellworth modeling and valuation platform targets the energy industry. “Once we began considering this venture, we realized that entrepreneurship is not what pop culture makes it out to be. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as building a great product, making a big exit, and living happily ever after.”
As a rule, the startup failure rate runs 70%-80% according to a landmark study by Harvard Business School’s Shikhar Ghosh. Many times, these ventures are done in by the usual suspects. They lose focus, make bad decisions, or run out of cash. Sometimes, MBA startups grow into juggernauts like Warby Parker (Wharton), Rent the Runway (Harvard Business School), or SoFi (Stanford GSB). Question is, which MBA-founded ventures possess the potential to shrug off the growing pains to emerge as category definers and disruptors?
MOST PROMISING MBA STARTUPS FROM THE CLASS OF 2019
This summer, Poets&Quants reached out to 28 leading business schools. The goal: find the most promising startups being run by 2019 MBA graduates. This year, 22 programs supplied startups whose fundamentals and funding give them a shot at long-term success. They include ventures that grew out of storied programs like the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Wharton School, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and INSEAD. Four programs were even confident enough to supply two startups. In a “Fail fast, fail often, and fail forward” universe, these MBA-run firms are innovating, serving, executing, and wowing. In the process, they are creating new markets, breaking down barriers, or simply tormenting incumbents.
Sable has the potential to rack up all three. Founded by Columbia Business School graduates, Sable brands itself as the “first mobile bank for internationals in the U.S.” Targeting international students, the platform enables customers to easily access their Sable Card with just a passport. Already accepted into Y Combinator, Sable is moving cautiously, with a 200 members in an invite-only pilot. Upon roll out, the institution will be able to tap into a market of 44.5 million immigrants in the United States alone!
Another Columbia MBA startup, SiteRx, has developed a digital platform where local doctors and patients can connect for clinical trials. Connection is also the basis for Talent IPO, where students can tap into university-affiliated investors to fund their education in exchange for a share of their future income. At Indiana University, Ryan Underdahl applied this digital model to volunteerism through Civic Champs, which enable nonprofits to track volunteer hours. That’s just a start for his venture.
“We will also introduce scheduling, background and waiver tracking, volunteer texting, and micro-donations to our platform over the next six months,” Underdahl adds.
THE NEXT LINKEDIN…OR AIRBNB
Other MBA startups rely on sophisticated artificial intelligence technologies. At the University of Minnesota, Jack Schneeman helped launch Phraze to aid physicians. In initial tests, this “scribe” has freed up 90 minutes a day by parsing through key data during patient conversations to generate clinical documentation. Stanford’s Ian Cinnamon, following the Aegis AI model, uses artificial intelligence to bolster the capabilities of X-ray machines. Citing research that links repetitive tasks with decreased attention over time, Cinnamon started the Synapse Technology Corporation to support security operators in places ranging from airports to courthouses.
“Our goal is to build fully autonomous security scanning machines that use AI to automatically identify dangerous threats like guns and knives with a higher speed and accuracy than human beings can detect,” he writes.
Other MBA startups drew their inspiration from famous brands. ESADE’s Moonshot Diversity & Inclusion hopes to mimic Glassdoor in helping job seekers find firms that truly support equal opportunities. In contrast, Amanda Joseph, a 2019 University of Virginia MBA, has built a platform where travelers can plan trips using recommendations from friends. “LinkedIn provides access to friends’ professional information; Instagram to their day-to-day lives; Trulli will provide that access for travel,” she believes. After graduating from UCLA’s Anderson School, Guillermo Cornejo is intent on turning his Riders Share into “the Airbnb of motorcycles.”
“I tried to rent a motorcycle and it was over $200 – more than the monthly payment on a brand new bike,” he explains. “Motorcycle ownership does not make economic sense because people average less than 2,000 miles per year on them…We connect unused motorcycles with people who want to ride them. We supply low-cost insurance by using machine learning to vet riders and minimize accidents. We have over 2,500 active listings nationwide. Just like the car industry transformed itself into the mobility industry, we plan to transform motorcycles into an experience industry.”
A MEANS TO EMPOWER WOMEN
Not every MBA startup was predicated on analytics, artificial intelligence, or algorithms. Take M’panadas, which matriculated at Georgetown University’s McDonough School. Positioned as “real food to fuel people on the go,” M’panadas promotes health with a balanced meal tucked inside a pocket using ingredients inspired by Hispanic street foods. UCLA’s Eliqs caters to special events with personalized craft beers. In the apparel space, Lia Winograd’s Pepper markets bras to women with small cup sizes, an often-underserved population with unique physical and emotional needs.
“One-size-fits-all designs and mass-retail marketing marginalize certain body types, demoralizing women who fall outside the ‘standard’ fit,” writes the New York University MBA. “For small-chested women, market bra offerings result in digging underwires, falling straps, and dreaded cup gaps. Pepper re-examined every detail of the bra to optimize fit. We are championing the body-positivity movement for this unique audience and our ultimate mission is to empower women by helping them feel beautiful and confident in the bodies they have.”
Of course, several MBA startups defy traditional startup categories. This year, Sahar Jamal won the 2019 Kellogg Social Entrepreneurship Award at Northwestern University, which included $70,000 in seed money. Her solution? She designed a breast pump customized for working women in developing countries. “By prioritizing features such as battery power, milk storage, and discreetness,” Jamal explains, “the Maziwa breast pump alleviates the difficult decision mothers are forced to make between staying at home to feed their babies and going into work in order to be able to feed their families.”
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To read over two dozen in-depth profiles of the most innovative MBA startups, go to page 4.
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