Education Technology Firm Takes Top New Venture Challenge Prize

An education technology start-up with a record of early success, Watermelon Express took the top spot in the 14th annual Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge on May 27 following an all-day finals competition at Harper Center.

The firm offers an industry-leading technology platform that delivers educational applications across multiple platforms, such as smart phones, tablet PCs, laptops, and desktops. As winner of the contest, which is sponsored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, the company receives $30,000, as well as legal services, professional consulting, and incubator space in the ARCH Venture Partners New Business Incubator at the Polsky Center.

The company is run by Ashish Rangnekar a first year student in the Full-Time MBA Program.

Ultimately, Watermelon Express stood out because of its innovation and the fact that it is already succeeding as a start-up, according to Prashant Shah, ‘93, one of the judges for the finals competition. “They’re tapping into a real shift in what’s happening with technology,” Shah said. “The trend toward college prep is huge. That industry has been established. Now they are taking advantage of how that industry is implementing technology, things like iPad, iPhone, Android, etc. It’s a perfect example of where markets actually move because of technology trends, and a novel concept like they have can capitalize on the trend. This was the business that has the most potential of everything we saw here today.”

The WMX platform is highly scalable and can adopt content from any subject area, language, and country. Over the past 12 months, 40,000 students across 64 countries have used the WMX iPhone, desktop, and/or web applications.

Rangnekar said he and his cofounder, Ujjwal Gupta, realized they needed to offer more than a quizzing application in order to make money. “We asked ourselves where we could apply this, then wrote GMAT problems and said ‘Let’s make it a GMAT test prep (application).’ It started selling like hotcakes. Then we said, ‘But it is still an app. How do we convert it to a business?’

“First, it had to be across platforms, because as soon as you get home you don’t want to work on your iPhone. Then we realized this is a paying point for the publishers. It’s great for students, but the actual financial benefits are for the publishers who have been publishing books, and are really struggling with the delivery of content electronically. There are iPhones, and iPads and e-books, but publishers are not equipped to transfer the content onto these platforms.”

Steven Kaplan, Neubauer Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and faculty director of the Polsky Center, said since this year’s finalist pool was the strongest ever, judges opted to raise the prize pool by 50 percent, from $50,000 to $75,000, in order to give some funding to all nine teams who reached the finals.

Future Simple, the second-place team and winner of $15,000, provides simple and intuitive online business software for small businesses. Their first product, PipeJump, is a sales tracking application for small businesses, which creates a unique interface through reduction of form elements and drag-and-drops.

Two teams tied for third place, each winning $10,000. Andreas Baking Company is a new wholesale bakery based in Tanzania, which will provide local consumers a variety of high-quality, nutritious baked goods. Bolder Thinking has built a proprietary enterprise quality business telephony solution that utilizes advanced cloud computing technology to replace expensive on-premise hardware-based telephony solutions.

Other finalist teams, each receiving $2,000, included BelliSwap, a web-based business offering brand-name maternity wear for rent; Cambia Tu, an online self-development portal in Spanish for Latin Americans; Quantitative Insights, Inc., a biotechnology company that has produced QuantX, a platform technology for characterization and diagnosis of cancer from medical images; Rogue Technologies, which has developed a cutting-edge eye tracking system that will enable next-generation user interfaces in mass market applications; and TurboBOTZ, a service that allows video game players to buy, sell, and trade video games within a single online site.

The NVC process includes two phases and a finals competition. During autumn quarter, students pitch business ideas, collaborate, and form teams. In early February, teams submit feasibility summaries about their proposed ventures, and a number of them are selected to advance to the second phase, where they develop their ideas into full business plans with instructor guidance and critique from venture capitalists, private investors, and established entrepreneurs. Finalist teams are selected to present at the finals competition before a world-class panel of investors and entrepreneurs, who determine the winners.

To date, the NVC has awarded $675,000 and has helped launch more than 60 companies, which have gone on to raise more than $100 million in equity capital. These have included GrubHub, Bobtail Ice Cream, MedSpeed, and PrepMe.

—Patrick Ferrell