Technovation Participants
May 29, 2015

Student Inventors Advance in Technovation Challenge--and Learn How to Build a Business

PA Team is One of Six Finalists in Global Competition; Another Had Advanced to Semifinals
by Jenny Barker

“It is easy to feel excluded and unacknowledged in your school community; but with PraisePop, an innovative and user-friendly iPhone application, you can feel happier and more included in a matter of seconds,” reads a marketing teaser for the mobile application designed by Phillips Academy’s team of four girls who founded their company, WoCo & Co.” (shorthand for Women Who Code), as part of Technovation Challenge, a global competition designed to interest girls in careers in technology and entrepreneurship.

The WoCo girls recently received word that they’ve been selected as competition finalists, following an online semifinal round and an earlier regional pitch night and showcase on May 1, 2015, in Cambridge, Mass. WoCo is one of six of teams, including three U.S. teams, who have advanced to the final competition in San Francisco. Another PA team, “Seventh,” had advanced to the semifinals and had previously placed second in the regional event for their app, “The Pack: Safety in Numbers.” This was the first year that Phillips Academy competed; 22 PA girls, divided into teams of four to five students, completed the challenge.

Pitching their apps in competition has been the culmination of the girls’ participation in the 12-week Technovation Challenge program, in which 400 teams from 60 countries competed. WoCo consists of PA students Qiqi Ren ‘15 and Moe Sunami ‘17, who focused primarily on the coding and app design, and Jenny Huang ‘16 and Sloane Sambuco ‘15, who focused on business development and communications. Their mobile app, “PraisePop,” aims to promote kindness and inclusivity at PA through a social media platform (which requires an Andover login) to post anonymous, uplifting comments to fellow students. Team Seventh includes students Samantha Lin ’16, Sabine Nix ’16, Nupur Neogi ’16, and Veronica Nutting ’16. Their app, “The Pack,” is designed to complement safety efforts on campus by enabling friends to track and check in on one another.

“After working for months on researching, developing the idea, coding the app, and writing the business plan, seeing our final product come to life was incredibly satisfying. We learned how important collaboration and hard work are, and how, when you put your heart into things, you are rewarded,” commented Sambuco of WoCo.

The goal for each Technovation team was to work like entrepreneurs—conceiving of, designing, and developing an original mobile app on either Android or iPhone—that solves a problem in their community. The teams were tasked with conducting market research, writing a business plan, shooting a pitch video, and creating a demonstration video of their apps.

“The hardest part of Technovation Challenge is that it asks students to come up with an original idea for the app, learn to work as a team, develop several key technical and entrepreneurial skills—all in a short period of time,” said Maria Litvin, Mathematics and Computer Science Instructor at PA, who is serving as the students’ coach. Litvin brought the challenge to campus for the first time and earned funding for it from PA’s Tang Institute. “This is difficult, considering that app design and skills development need to happen as students continue with their demanding academic work, sports, and established extracurricular activities. We started with seven teams and ended with five. I am proud of each member of the PA teams that competed in the Technovation Challenge and participated in the Regional event.” 

Introducing PraisePop to the Market

WoCo proceeded with their idea for PraisePop following a careful analysis of their target market. After conducting a number of surveys with potential users on campus, for example, the team found that fellow students viewed positive feedback from peers as an important aspect of campus life; but respondents noted that they are often too busy with their own work to recognize others. The PraisePop app was designed to address this need by allowing users to post compliments about community members through a quick and easy social media feed and to chime in on others’ posts with “up-votes” and comments.

"The PacK" Accounts for Target Market

As they assessed their target market, team Seventh figured that, if every 14 to ­30 year old in America used the app, they could, in an ideal scenario, have 49 million users and a decrease in sexual assaults, hospitalizations, and deaths. They also considered national statistics. According to studies, 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during her college years. 89% of these sexual assaults occur when the victim is incapacitated due to alcohol.

The Pack provides young adults with a safety app to help friends keep watch on one another and to help prevent possible negative incidents. The idea is that many issues can be ameliorated by the presence of a trusted friend, before the issue becomes more serious and requires police. With the app, users can start events, add friends, and set a code word for mid-­event check ins. They can also view the check-in status of other members and, with a GPS tracking feature, see their friends’ location relative to their own on a map. Seventh calls their app, “an expanded, digitized version of the time-tested buddy system.”

Plans for the Future

Litvin noted that, based on feedback from this year’s student participants and from adult mentors for the teams, she plans to continue Technovation Challenge at PA, but will start it earlier in the year to provide extra time for students to learn and to produce the apps. She also noted that several of the girls are thinking about starting a new app club or helping to grow other, related campus efforts, in order to complement Technovation on campus and involve more students in coding.

Despite not advancing to the Technovation finals, the entrepreneurial girls behind team Seventh have great plans for their app. They’re already seeking funding to continue development of “The Pack” and ideally launch it in the PA community.

“We believe that safety is a big issue and that our app, ‘The Pack: Safety in Numbers,’ could truly make a difference in communities,” said representatives of Seventh. “That is why we want to work hard and see the final app development through. We learned from Technovation that the skills we have developed go beyond just the competition; they are with us for life and we want to put them to good use.”

Possible new app features include an arrow or “friend compass” that directs users to their friends; it would complement the app’s existing GPS tracking page, as well as provide the option to save “Packs” and customize check-­in times. They also plan to develop their app on an iOS platform so that it is fully accessible to everyone with smartphones.

To the Finals They Go!

“World Pitch,” the final competition, will take place in San Francisco, from June 24 to 25, 2015, with a full schedule of pitches and other events with technology professionals for team WoCo. The competition is open to the public, but registration in advance is required. One winning team will be awarded $10,000 in seed funding.

Prevailing in “World Pitch” would be a great boon to business for WoCo. But the girls have already secured support in growing their app with help from the Abbot Academy Association, which recognized them for, “impressively taking on macro challenges by demonstrating female leadership in the underrepresented coding industry while also addressing micro problems of inclusivity on PA’s campus, which the administration has made a strategic priority.” The girls will use their Abbot Grant to operate PraisePop in the PA community.

“We hope to speak in-depth to more faculty, including the Head of School, about making the app a reality on this campus,” said Huang. “If we can get the app working and successful in our school, we will have evidence that shows how popular and viable our app can be.”

In addition, the WoCo girls have recently been chosen to appear in a documentary by critically-acclaimed filmmaker, Lesley Chilcott, who plans to film the girls and other teams throughout the country as they compete in Technovation Challenge. The film is currently scheduled to be completed in 2015. Chilcott has also produced a number of other documentaries, including the Academy Award-winning Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman.

But what was the best part of the entire experience for the girls? According to Huang, it was, “meeting three incredible girls who shared my passion to make a difference in the community.”

With their school community cheering them on and watching their businesses unfold in exciting ways, all of the PA girls involved in Technovation Challenge have, in many ways, already made quite a difference.

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