Calling all creatives for new Comcast-Pennovation Challenge

Since the Pennovation Center’s opening, Comcast Corp. has vowed its support. In addition to providing its fastest internet service throughout the 58,000-square-foot facility in Grays Ferry, the media and technology giant is now leading an initiative out of the Center that gives creative Philadelphians the potential to influence the Internet of Things (IoT) space in a unique way.

Dubbed the Comcast-Pennovation Challenge, groups of local university researchers, faculty members, and students, as well as entrepreneurs, are invited to craft innovative solutions to further expand machineQ, Comcast’s IoT service, which is working to advance the connectivity of devices, systems, and services. (Think smart home or smart city.)

“In this context, embracing this challenge makes a lot of sense for people at Penn,” says Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “At Penn, we have an amazing tradition of linking the cyber and physical worlds, which is another way of describing IoT.”

Those interested in participating should submit proposals on the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) website by Monday, Jan. 30. Comcast will choose five to seven teams to participate in the Challenge, which throughout the next few months will involve training sessions, office hours, and a demo day at the end of March.

Laurie Actman, chief marketing, communications, and programs officer for PCI, which is charged with developing these kinds of corporate sponsorships and initiatives, says the Comcast-Pennovation Challenge is a “win-win” for both institutions.

“Penn and Comcast are two of the major employers and anchors in driving innovation in Philadelphia,” she says. “To team up and connect all these smart people from different sectors, and create and foster innovation together in Philadelphia, is pretty powerful.”

Members from the machineQ team will coach the program’s participants, as well as train them to use LoRa technology, or a long range, low power wireless platform to build IoT networks. Those involved will be provided with a special development kit and network and application server, among other necessary tools. 

“The hope is that we find ways of developing new products, and bring the research that happens in universities to life one day in our business,” says Danielle Cohn, Comcast’s senior director of entrepreneurial engagement, adding that this particular initiative is the first of what is likely to be many more. “College campus collaboration combined with corporate collaboration is the key to a successful innovation city.”

Two teams will receive accolades after demo day, taking home first- and second-place prizes. The first-place team will receive $3,000 and the second-place team will receive $1,500. Both teams will automatically be accepted into Penn I-Corps, an on-campus accelerator program supported by the National Science Foundation, and will receive six-month memberships to work out of the Pennovation Center.

“It’s such an exciting opportunity,” says Dawn Bonnell, vice provost for research at Penn. “In addition to prize money, these teams are going to have Comcast as their customer. And even if you don’t come in first or second place, you still win. Having a relationship with Comcast—now that’s a pretty good business partner to have.” 

The Comcast-Pennovation Challenge was announced at a November event at the Pennovation Center that featured Penn President Amy Gutmann and Comcast’s Senior Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, also chairman of Penn’s Board of Trustees. A panel with Comcast’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Development Ebony Lee, Cohen, and Kumar discussed Philadelphia’s tech scene and trends.

Chatting after the event, Kumar recalls a particular question that asked what he hopes “Pennovation” becomes known for.

“In my business, everyone talks about Silicon Valley,” he says. “Perhaps after partnerships like this one with Comcast, we can become our own ‘Schuylkill Valley.’ That’s my hope.”

Pennovation Center