Comcast-Pennovation Challenge Winners Consider Building a Business

With no intention of becoming founders, Viewpoint team members may have created a viable new product and started their future company.

A group of students from the University of Pennsylvania entered the inaugural Comcast-Pennovation Challenge with no expectation of starting a company. But when their team, Viewpoint, won the joint entrepreneur competition from University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Innovation and Comcast NBCUniversal’s machineQ network, the course of their future may have shifted.

The Comcast-Pennovation Challenge asked teams of students and faculty from Philadelphia’s colleges and universities to develop new Internet of Things (IoT) technology that would utilize machineQ’s actionable intelligence network for smart cities. MachineQ relies upon long-range, low-power sensor technology to seamlessly transmit crucial data between parties.

The Challenge was organized by the Penn Center for Innovation and Comcast NBCUniversal’s Entrepreneurial Engagement team, and is an example of what the company will be doing to partner more with startups in its new LIFT Labs for Entrepreneurs programs.

Viewpoint proposed a strategic system to collect and share structural stability data for Philadelphia’s bridges and overpasses. The team is composed of students Kevin Martin, Chelsea Meyers, Grace Moore, and Jono Sanders from Penn’s Masters in Integrated Product Design program, and Evan Oskierko-Jeznacki from the university’s department of Historic Preservation at the School of Design.

“Everyone has a different background and our interdisciplinary approach was really important in bringing so many perspectives and skillsets to the table,” Martin said. “It helped us find a well-defined program and develop a solution that pushed us to a different level and helped us win the competition.”

The road to creating Viewpoint, though, was not so clear cut. The team first brainstormed and analyzed a number of ideas, ranging from cold change management and leak detection to environmental health monitoring and crowd data at large events.

After looking into broader infrastructure issues and interviewing members of the Philadelphia Streets Department, Viewpoint saw a clear need for a new approach to maintaining Philadelphia’s bridges and overpasses.

“The Streets Department has a very limited budget and most of their spending is reactionary after things go wrong,” Martin said. “We want to give them the tools to use preventative maintenance, which is vastly less expensive, before a problem occurs.”

Before attending Penn, Martin was an engineer for the U.S. Navy in South Philadelphia. His work background influenced Viewpoint’s approach to infrastructure.

“In the Navy, preventative maintenance is so important – it’s how we keep our ships running,” he said, “I wanted to know why we aren’t doing the same for our infrastructure.”

Viewpoint presented a system that uses sensors to monitor concrete health over time and relay the data to officials and crews so they can repair bridges before concrete failure.

“There are thousands of bridges in Philadelphia – not just the big steel ones over the Delaware – but highway overpasses, which a lot of people don’t think about, and other raised roadways that consistently need maintenance,” Martin said.

Viewpoint completed a rigorous interview process to understand what users needed and how to deliver it using machineQ.

“Given the extent of aging infrastructure in the United States, the Viewpoint team has identified a unique, underserved market need and developed a technical solution more compelling and sophisticated than we see from many fully-funded IoT companies,” said Alex Khorram, GM, machineQ. “We are excited to help the team grow their idea into real-world pilots with the potential to become a commercial product.”

While Viewpoint team members didn’t begin the project with the intention of founding a new business (and are still plenty busy with school), they will continue to work on Viewpoint in their free time with help from Comcast and Penn. For their winning proposal, the team received a $3,000 cash award, six-month membership to  the Pennovation Center, and participation in Penn’s I-Corps business plan creation program.

If they are able to create a viable product, Viewpoint might be able to help cities across America repair the country’s 614,000 bridges before they fail.