Wharton MBA Duo Wins $50K Grand Prize In WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce Contest

Even before setting foot on campus to begin the MBA program at the Wharton School, Paolo Fornasini connected with another incoming MBA interested in leveraging their Wharton experience to launch a startup. Fornasini met Rohan Parikh on an entrepreneurship interest spreadsheet being passed around at the school.

Parikh had an idea for a business that would allow people to consume web content without having to sign up and pay for every news site. “He had the original idea around the user pain points: how painful paywalls and subscriptions can be,” says Fornasini, who had worked at Google as manager of mobile app partnerships. “I had just seen the challenges startups had in acquiring new users and monetizing them. So we really came together representing both parts of that marketplace.”

Not only did they come together to develop and launch Keye which allows users on-demand access to expensive subscriptions like digital news sites and streaming apps with a single subscription. The pair also was the unanimous choice of a panel of judges for Washington University’s Olin Business School BIG IdeaBounce® pitch contest.


BIG IndeaBounce 2023

The Wharton team walked away with the $50,000 grand prize after being invited to Olin’s campus in St. Louis with two other finalists from Babson College and from Canada’s University of Lethbridge. The three were chosen from 130 startup ideas from ten countries and more than 60 universities.

Fornasini made the pitch himself in front of three judges, all entrepreneurs who have started successful companies. The poise he showed in handling some tough questions, along with the progress the two co-founders had already made in getting their company off the ground, made Keye the clear winner.

“Keye has real partnerships and, as such, it allows them to answer all questions from a position of experience,” observes Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University. “Actual traction and customer validation always trump everything else.”


In second place and winner of a $5,000 prize was the Babson team led by Swarna Shiv for Unsmudgeable, a startup that makes a green permanent anti-smudge lens coating. In third place and winner of a $2,000 prize was Mycos Supplements, a company led by CEO Gregory Robinson, who is also pursuing an MBA from Gies College of Business. Mycos extracts vitamins and metabolites with medicinal value from mushrooms.

This year’s Poest&Quants favorite and winner of a $1,000 prize was Sebela AR, a makeup virtual try-on for e-commerce brands, founded by students at Babson, Olin College of Engineering, and San Jose State University. The contest was open to any current undergraduate or graduate students, or any prospect interested in a graduate business school degree.

They faced three judges: Maxine Clark, the founder and former CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop; Akeem Shannon, CEO and founder of Flipstik, and John A. Byrne, the founder of C-Change Media, which includes Poets&Quants, and the former Executive Editor of Businessweek magazine and former Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company.

No doubt, the early pre-MBA meeting between Fornasini and Rohan Parikh, who had been a senior trader at Natixis CIB Americas, made a meaningful difference. The two entered Wharton with the express purpose of using their MBA experience as an incubator, drawing on all the entrepreneurial resources the school musters on behalf of student founders. They launched their app six weeks before the competition in St. Louis.


“I had worked with startups previously and had always been interested in being a founder myself,” says Fornasini, who had worked closely with newspaper publishers and gaming companies while at Google. “Once I met a co-founder who shared a passion for the space, I knew this was something I wanted to pursue. Wharton played a big part in helping incubate and accelerate us.”

Their plan is to charge users a $9 per month fee in return for 10 to 15 chances to access content, data, and productivity tools of the companies that partner with them. When he made the pitch, Keye already could boast of having roughly 40 partnerships with services such as Crunchbase, Masterclass, Babbel, and Grammarly. The startup also has longer-term plans to layer on additional revenues by charging smaller service fees for listing on their site and using user data to sell targeted advertising.

To pursue the startup, Fornasini turned down a lucrative job offer with McKinsey & Co., where he was a summer intern. “As much as the MBA was a professional decision, it was also a personal decision to step back from my career and explore as much as I could as I was winding down my twenties and figuring out what I wanted to do,” he says. “I loved McKinsey. I learned so much there and it’s filled with great people. From what I want to do with my career, I found the right co-founder and the right idea.”


Before arriving in St. Louis, Fornasini had been working on his pitch every day for the past eight weeks, even before he had been invited to the BIG IdeaBounce finals. “I tried to come in prepared, knowing that someone with a media background was on the panel,” he says.”I have always been told that I have a calm and collected personality but we have also done a lot of competitions.”

For Fornasini, Olin was familiar ground. His very first undergraduate class at Washington University was in the same Olin Business School building where he would do his presentation. “I loved my time at Olin, and I had a ton of great support from the Career Center here.”

During his pitch, he noted that the ubiquity of paywalls on the web has led to what he called “subscription fatigue” that is now leaving more than $15 billion on the table for content providers. Some 96% of users go unmonetized as a result.


“So what are they doing instead?” asked Fornasini. “They are literally begging, borrowing, and stealing.”

He then showed screenshots of classmates and others asking for passwords and shared accounts.

“When we saw this we thought there has to be a better way to deliver to these people the content they need. That’s how we came up with Keye.”

Watch The BIG IdeaBounce Pitch Competition Now

DON’T MISS: These 14 Startup Ideas Made The Cut For WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce $50K Top Prize

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.