A Review of “The Pitch” – Live from The Wharton SchoolBy Annie Forhan
On November 28, 2018, StartU’s Wharton Team attended the first-ever live recording session of Gimlet Media’s podcast, The Pitch, at the Wharton School. Three of Philadelphia’s most promising student and alumni-founded startups faced off in a live pitch competition for a chance at advancing to a future taping of the show.
Gimlet Media’s The Pitch
The Pitch, hosted by Josh Muccio, was recently dubbed the best business podcast on startup life by Fortune. Each episode takes listeners behind the scenes to experience what it is really like when entrepreneurs pitch for investment, and also sheds light on the investor-entrepreneur dynamic beyond the moment when everyone shakes hands and leaves the room. Investors judging the November 28, 2018 show included Jillian Manus, Managing Partner at Structure Capital, and Phil Nadel, W’88 and Founder & Managing Director at Forefront Ventures.
StartU highlights Strella, the winning startup, along with runners-up, Rezzio and Swirl.
Summary: Strella enables smarter produce distribution through gas chromatography ripeness sensing technology
Status: Sales of 15 sensors secured with two large apple distributors
Founder and CEO of Strella Biotech, Katherine Sizov, is a biology major at the University of Pennsylvania. In a spunky and impressively thorough pitch, she detailed her vision for smarter produce distribution using ripeness sensing technology.
Today’s produce packing facilities contain hundreds of controlled atmosphere (CA) storage rooms that are sealed most of the season and cannot be efficiently monitored through inspections. Current methods for testing fruit ripeness include quality control testing, which does not accurately capture the ripeness of the room, and chemical treatments, which are not natural. Furthermore, using dates and times to track fruit storage is inaccurate since the speed at which a fruit ripens is closely linked to the ripeness of the fruits surrounding it.
Strella Biotech has developed a gas chromatography biosensor that can predict the maturity of virtually any fresh fruit. The sensors utilize the same mechanism that fruits use to sense and signal ripeness, combined with an electronic output. They can be installed in controlled atmosphere storage rooms to monitor apples as they ripen, supporting packers and distributors in identifying the location of their ripest and readiest apples. This improved sensing not only minimizes spoilage and quality downgrade costs, but also helps reduces food waste.
Strella is currently focused on the ~4 billion-dollar U.S. apple market, which loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually due to spoilage in the distribution phase. Since Strella’s sensors can be used to sense ripeness of a variety of fruits, it hopes to soon expand to other markets including pears and bananas.
Investor Insights: Both investors selected Strella to advance to the next round of programming for The Pitch. They were impressed with Katherine’s industry and technical expertise, as well as her thorough approach to building customer relationships. While Strella has successfully differentiated its product, it will need to watch other players in the fruit distribution monitoring space as competition and investment continue to grow. Additionally, with the team currently assembling each sensor by hand, Strella will need to soon identify a scalable production solution.
My Take: Produce preservation is a space I have not thought much about, but when Katherine mentioned that the apples we buy at the grocery store can be up to eight months old, I was intrigued. Strella has certainly done its due diligence, and the time it has invested in building relationships with apple distributors nationwide will definitely be advantageous. I was surprised to learn that the team is currently assembling all of its sensors by hand. Strella will need to prioritize shifting to a more scalable production solution before demand ramps up.
Summary: App technology that helps employees grow their personal networks and cultivate a more connected workforce
Status: Private beta testing
In a world of increasingly polarized views and opinions, there is a growing need for companies to double down on workplace inclusion to reduce employee turnover and instill a sense of belonging among their teams. Swirl is an application that assists employees in diversifying their personal networks. After employees fill out a user profile, the application uses an algorithm to identify other employees they should connect with based not only on skills and interests, but also on commonalities and differences. The app then facilitates an introduction between the employees, including a reason for the match-up and suggestions of what the employees can connect about.
Swirl assists employees in expanding their networks and helps employers meet their diversity and inclusion objectives and cultivate a more connected workforce. By using technology to facilitate human connections, Swirl helps employees lean in to the discomfort of meeting someone new while promoting authentic relationships and embracing diversity.
Swirl leverages existing communications channels like Slack to distribute the app and is currently in private beta testing.
Investor Insights: With Munir as Swirl’s solo founder, the judges encouraged identifying a co-founder with a complimentary skill set to support the startup’s growth. They also expressed concerns about Swirl’s defensibility as new solutions enter the market, and the potential for companies to create their own internal networking solutions instead of seeking help from outside parties.
My Take: Having worked at a company where internal networking is critical to professional success, I think Swirl is definitely addressing a challenge many employees face. However, I worry about how Swirl will differentiate itself from the plethora of other apps promising social networking benefits and be seen as a benefit to employees, rather than a burden. To be successful, Swirl will need to make its value clear to both the employers investing in it and the employees using it.
Summary: A platform that offers support to students as they transition from classroom to career
Status: Recently completed proof of concept and currently testing revenue model with career services departments. Starting first round of investment
Rezzio is a career readiness tool used by colleges and universities that tracks and facilitates virtual and physical career-focused learning events. With a continually evolving job market and a national average student to career counselor ratio of 1 to 1200, universities face challenges in providing personalized career support to each student and identifying job opportunities that align with student skills and interests. The Rezzio platform delivers a data analytics and recommendation engine that proactively assists students in making career decisions and preparing for the rapidly changing job market. The platform also supports institutional stakeholders in updating curricula and designing initiatives to improve student outcomes.
Rezzio recently completed its proof of concept and is partnering with career management departments at colleges and universities to deploy the platform. To measure the tool’s success, Rezzio is collecting data over the end-to-end college student experience, onboarding students during freshmen year and tracking soft skill development through their senior year. In the future, Rezzio hopes to partner with employers to better understand and address evolving job skill demands.
Investor Insights: Both investors agreed that there is an immense need for a solution to the problem Rezzio is addressing. However, they were concerned about the number of competitors Rezzio will face, the time it will take to gather initial student data, and scalability.
My Take: I think Rezzio has potential to really help students, especially those with limited career support resources or loosely defined career goals. The platform’s value seems to come from continuous use throughout the student experience and thorough data entry, so Rezzio will need to find a way to keep students engaged with the technology throughout their college experience.
As a frequent Shark Tank viewer experiencing The Pitch for the first time, I found myself drawing comparisons between the two shows. The startups featured in The Pitch were more early stage than those on Shark Tank and the judges seemed more genuine, expressing support for the founders and their ventures throughout the show. Occasionally, attempts at humor on the part of the judges seemed forced, but generally the banter between the judges was entertaining and informative of how investors assess such early stage ventures. Overall, I enjoyed being a part of the live audience and hearing from founders in the Philadelphia student-startup ecosystem. Be sure to tune into The Pitch’s podcast to find out if Strella receives its target investment.