Competition Leads Five Penn Students to Successful Social Entrepreneurship

A year ago, what started as a “crazy idea” among five University of Pennsylvania students in the off-campus apartment of senior Josh Tycko has turned into a budding social entrepreneurial business that is changing lives – theirs and those of thousands of children in India.

At the time, group members Eric Kauderer Abrams, a mathematics major from Englewood, N.J., and Thoba Grenville-Grey a philosophy, politics and economics major from Cape Town, South Africa, were about to graduate. Tycko was approaching his final semester, and Spencer Penn was completing his undergraduate degree at Wharton and was about to start his final year in Engineering’s robotics master’s program. Along with Morgan Snyder, then a sophomore, the group had often talked about their wish to take what they’d learned at Penn, harness collective expertise across the University and design a scalable social enterprise that could, says Tycko, “do something good, something that mattered.” And all were thinking “What next?”

“What,” became the Hult Prize. Tycko, a biological and mathematics major in the School of Arts & Sciences from Demarest, N.J., had learned about the prize through another friend.

Funded by the Hult Prize Foundation, the $1 million Prize, termed the “the Nobel Prize for students,” is given annually to a team of university or college students with a start up that addresses global issues through social enterprise. In partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, former President Bill Clinton issued the theme of the 2014 challenge in September: “Seeking ideas for start-ups that could solve non-communicable disease in the urban slum.”

Tycko, who will graduate in December says, “We were the type of friends that brainstorm these sorts of entrepreneurial ideas just for fun, but it was really the Hult Prize that provided the structure and impetus we needed to work through all the details and create a complete business plan. It was the perfect way to take the loose crazy ideas that we might be having in my apartment and make it tangible and real.” 

The friends set to work thinking about what kind of business idea might be the basis of a successful submission. 

Initially they focused on the idea of making a diabetes diagnostics material. They sought out professors and leaders at Penn for feedback. 

“We reached out to all sorts of professors and Penn groups to refine our ideas and simply learn more about the problem we were aiming to solve,” says Tycko.

Ian MacMillan, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Wharton School, was instrumental, says Tycko.

“He wrote a book about social entrepreneurship that kind of became our operating manual.”

The group also met with Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

Says Tycko, “Ezekiel Emanuel stood out as a person with experience thinking about large-scale health solutions, like the one we were hoping to build. He was actually most helpful in showing us that we should abandon the idea we were working on at the time, which sent us back to the drawing board and ultimately led to the creation of our successful plan.” 

It was then that the idea for Sweet Bites, a chewing gum that could fight dental disease in developing countries, began to take shape. 

Spencer Penn, of New York City, a 2013 Wharton grad who is currently in his final year in the robotics master’s program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science is an avid sugar-free gum chewer.

Says Penn, “I had heard xylitol gum is popular in Finland for its ability to fight cavities.”

By coincidence, says Emanuel, “It just so happened I was talking to the team just at the time I was writing an op-ed for The New York Times about xylitol and preventing cavities. This team was so creative in taking the idea and transforming it into one of those novel, magical ideas that look so obvious in retrospect.”

Penn says this knowledge combined with the stories that team member Morgan Snyder brought back from a year abroad in India about rampant dental disease in the slums of Bangalore soon got the group thinking about xylitol gum as the focus of their start-up business.

Snyder, a digital media design major in Engineering from Berwyn, Pa., had taken a year off in 2012-13 to travel to India to work with the Bangalore-based Dream A Dream network offering after school sports and arts programs in 20 grade schools there.

Working in some of the slums in Bangalore, she had noticed that many of the children did not smile. She learned this was due to the fact that many suffered from poor dental health and were embarrassed to show their teeth.

As the group began to focus its attention on how 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum might be a way to deliver dental health to developing countries, they again looked to Penn’s academic community for help.

Says Spencer Penn, “We met a few people from the School of Dental Medicine early on. Dr. Hyun Koo was great. We came into it knowing very little about dental health and cavities specifically, and within one hour of meeting with Dr. Koo we had a deep and nuanced knowledge and understanding that was still very shallow but much better than what we had before.”

Penn says understanding that preventing cavities in the long term was “about intervening and trying to decrease the amount that the teeth break down and increase the amount that the teeth rebuild” was key.

The group developed a plan to pilot the program in Bangalore by building on the relationships that Snyder had developed there.

Says Snyder, “Our team had access to head masters and mistresses who were already open to social initiatives and invested in the well being of their students. Most of these students were the same kids I had worked with a year ago, the ones whose struggle with dental hygiene I observed firsthand.”

The team submitted the idea for Sweet Bites to the Hult Prize. In January they heard that their pilot had been chosen from the first round of 11,000 applicants worldwide to compete with about 60 other enterprises at the regional competition. They spent the spring refining their business plan.

Says Tycko, “We worked on our idea and presented it to judges in Boston in March and were chosen as a regional finalist.”

As regional finalists the team earned one of six coveted spots on the Hult Prize’s accelerator program in Boston during the summer.

“The accelerator provided us with mentorship, office space, resources and helped us concentrate on the core business issues instead of the basic office set up,” says Tycko. “We were located with a number of other groups working alongside those other teams.”

In Boston, the Sweet Bites team developed and manufactured their product creating three flavors of the gum: cinnamon, mint and banana. As they prepared for the pilot launch in Bangalore, they again reached out to the Penn community.

Adriana Petryna, professor of anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences, advised on how to integrate the product into the social fabric in Bangalore. Phil Nichols, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics in Wharton, helped them work through launching a business in India.

Says Penn, “Nichols has made a career of understanding the delicate issues of working in other countries. He gave us a lot of key insights into how to work in India where none of us besides Morgan had been before, and we quickly used his advice to find local partners who were really good at helping us.”

In July, loaded down with samples of Sweet Bites gum, they arrived in Bangalore, but their shipment of the gum did not. Penn says they had just enough to last them during the four-week pilot. Their plan was to distribute the gum by selling directly to the local storeowners in the slums and to look for partnerships with local schools and nongovernmental organizations to develop a broader distribution.

In a moment of serendipity, making a cold call visit to the CEO of Akshaya Patra, an Indian program that provides meals to 1.4 million children throughout the country and 200,000 in Bangalore, they learned that he had studied at Wharton and knew Ian MacMillan. That association earned them a face-to-face meeting.

“It is another great Penn connection,” says Penn. “One of our biggest partnerships is now with Akshaya Patra. It turned out to be one of our best connections in India because we are piloting with them this year to try to scale up from a few schools in the first quarter of 2015 to all 1.4 million of their kids. We are able to distribute through their existing channel. They have had incredible success in providing hot midday meals in schools.” 

Now Tycko, Penn and Snyder are balancing classes while working on the business. Thoba Grenville-Grey and Eric Kauderer Abrams who graduated last May, have been involved in expanding the business. Grenville-Grey returned to Bangalore to work out on site hiring and distribution in India.

The business now has two routes for distributing the gum, through their partnership with Akshaya Patra’s feeding programs and through direct sales via “dental ambassadors.” These ambassadors are Indian dental students hired by Sweet Bites to provide education in the schools and to encourage the store owners in the slums to sell the xylitol gum. In return, Sweet Bites pays the students’ dental school tuition at a cost of $170 a year.

The dental ambassador system of distribution, says Penn, “was key to accessing this market without having to pay millions of dollars in advertising direct to consumer. It was a kind of a novel business practice that we kind of came up with on our own, through Wharton education and partially through great advisors at Wharton and throughout other schools at Penn.”

Emanuel says this kind of innovation is “just the combination of novel thinking and practical application that Penn cultivates.”

By all accounts the team is achieving success as social entrepreneurs and are committed to the idea of social change through business. 

The Sweet Bites team did not ultimately win this year’s Hult Prize, but its success continues nonetheless. 

Says Tycko, “We won $10,000 as finalists for the Philips Innovation Fellowship. We've also initiated a partnership with the local St. Christopher's Foundation and have plans to assist them in improving oral health in North Philly.”

Says Penn, “This is a great Penn story. The fact that we all came from varied backgrounds and that we’d worked as undergraduates in three or four of the schools was important. Being able to draw on experts in business, health and entrepreneurship is all due to Penn’s strong interdisciplinary collaborative theme.”

The Penn student-founded project also aligns with principals of Penn President Amy Gutmann's Penn Compact 2020 with its goals of innovation, impact and inclusion and its objectives of engaging locally and globally.

View images and read more about Sweet Bites' pilot project in Bangalore, India here.

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