Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Industry: Education Technology
Founding Student Name(s): Bryan Dinner (Penn JD/MBA) and Bradley Levergood (Darden MBA)
Brief Description of Solution: Clarifi is a distraction-free digital workspace with automated coaching tools where teens with ADHD and attention challenges do digital homework more efficiently and independently.
Funding Dollars: $250K
What led you to launch this venture? I was diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager and worked with a coach to develop coping strategies, which helped me through high school and college. However, as a first year in the JD/MBA program, the pandemic caused my productivity to nose-dive when all of my work moved online to my distraction-filled computer. I reached out to Bradley, a friend from college, to build a solution for me that would digitize my coping strategies and make digital school work easier. When Bradley’s digital attention coach helped me through Penn’s difficult JD/MBA program, it was clear that we had software that could help more students, like my teenage self, who have had so much of their schoolwork moved online.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Clarifi conducted an efficacy study at AIM Academy, a Philadelphia-area lab school for students with learning differences, in the spring of last year. It showed that along the leading academic research measures students using Clarifi had improved attention, bettered their homework performance, and showed greater independence. We worked with our partners at the Jacobs Foundation, and Professor Melissa Dvorsky, the head of Children National and GW’s ADHD and Learning Differences Program, to design and conduct the study, which will be published later this year.
How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture?
Bryan: The Wharton MBA along with its many cross-disciplinary resources have been essential in helping us start Clarifi in many ways. Clarifi was started out of a class group project with classmates rolling up their sleeves to help initiate the company. Access to Penn’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, led by the Venture Lab and the VIP-X accelerator, gave us our initial mentoring and funding to validate the idea. We participated in and sometimes won entrepreneurship competitions, such as the Startup Challenge and the Milken Education Competition. These experiences as well as conversations with classmates helped improve the idea and execution of Clarifi.
Bradley: Coming to Darden as somebody with a primarily tech background, this program has been absolutely essential to giving me the additional skills required to help move this venture forward. I’ve gone from looking at our software-development process purely through the “level-of-difficulty” lens to looking at it from a “value-add/customer-need” lens.
Darden focuses primarily on a discussion-based format where it isn’t enough to just be “right”, you have to think about differing perspectives in order to be effective and convincing.
What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, Azul Brazilian, and Breeze Airlines. I admire him for being very public with his ADHD diagnosis and coping. I also appreciate how he has innovated in an area that is regulated and difficult to change. He lost his job twice, and he has not let that slow him down one bit.
Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it?
Bryan: The idea for Clarifi started in Professor Tyler Wry’s introduction to entrepreneurship class (MGMT 801), where we worked through the initial business model and early validation. We started from the basic questions of what problem do you personally have and what community or identity do you connect with. Having finished my 1L year and the summer of classes of the JD/MBA program, which consisted of all digital assignments, the attention and self-regulation challenges were real and my ADHD was something that I was acutely aware of. I learned a lot in that class from Professor Wry and from my classmates, who were on my team project and who shared their experiences with wireframing, creating landing pages, running digital marketing campaigns, conducting stakeholder interviews, and so much more. My biggest lesson from the class was that there is far more process and science to developing and validating a business idea – it is a lot less than being struck by lightning than fits into the normal five-minute pitch.
Bradley: This past semester, I was able to participate in an application-only class called Venture Velocity, taught by Damon DeVito.
Each participant in the class has a venture that they are working on, and the class provides all of us with a framework for pushing our ventures forward. Damon has a unique ability to get you to challenge your own assumptions and to push you out of your comfort zone to tackle your business’s most important problems.
Additionally, the cohort of other founders in the class was amazing to work alongside. They have consistently provided suggestions, assistance, and connections that have really helped us push Clarifi forward. And even though the class is over, we are planning to continue meeting in the Spring.
What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why?
Bryan: There are many professors and Penn mentors who have been instrumental to our growth. Professor Sarah Pierce, who teaches the JD/MBA capstone, has been incredibly helpful as a personal and professional mentor. Most recently, her course, which included drafting and revising SAFEs, has been particularly helpful.
Bradley: In addition to Damon’s mentorship, Saras Sarasvathy has really helped me in my own entrepreneurship journey. Using her framework of “Effectual Entrepreneurship” has allowed us to think about how to best leverage our respective networks and do more with less so we have been able to most effectively make use of our resources.
How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success?
Bryan: Penn’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been critical for our team. The access to mentors, partners, and funding has been very helpful. In particular, the Venture Lab and Venture Initiation Program mentoring and VIP-X Accelerators has helped us move from class concept to real business. In addition to the mentors and resources at the law school and the business school from the JD/MBA program, we have been fortunate to collaborate with thought leaders from the top medical school and top education school in the country. Our largest research partners and foundation grants have come from our opportunities at the Penn Graduate School of Education.
Bradley: The startup ecosystem at UVA has been incredibly helpful to Clarifi’s success. In addition to all the support I have received from my Darden classmates these past two years, we were able to participate in the Batten Institute’s Innovation Lab Accelerator this past summer. Through that program we received both financial assistance and access to many great mentors, including the program coordinator, Jason Brewster. Additionally, we were able to work alongside some truly impressive founders, both from the undergraduate program, as well as from the greater Charlottesville area.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? We plan to be the leading attention technology company. We are structured as a Public Benefit Corporation, a profit-making corporation with the binding social mission to create software that gives students greater control over their attention, enabling them to grow and make their mark on the world. In the near–term we are focused on developing software that empowers teens to do school work more efficiently, confidently, and independently, starting with middle school, high school, and a growing number of college students. In the longer-term, we will adjust and enhance our attention software to support students as life-long learners, as they grow in the professional world. Students who use Clarifi are creative, out of the box thinkers who change how the world works, and we hope to strengthen their ability to do so.
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