Penn at SXSW

This is the third year the Penn Center for Innovation has led a group of University-affiliated startups to the conferences and festivals in Austin.

Every March in Austin, South by Southwest—or SXSW for short—features various festivals and conferences that mesh film, music, and interactive media. For the past three years, the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), in an effort led by Laurie Actman, has made the University’s presence known at the SXSW Interactive events—showcasing and promoting Penn’s innovation activities, new technologies, and startups through panels, pitch competitions, and at the trade show.

Barbara Medoff-Cooper and Caroline Hoedemaker, of Neonur, a startup that participated in PCI’s I-Corps in 2017, pose for a photo at the Penn booth at SXSW.

“The planning and effort takes a lot of work but ultimately this engagement has helped to further Penn and Philadelphia’s reputation as a tech and startup hub that is growing,” said Actman, PCI’s chief marketing, communications, and programs officer. “It shows that we should not be overlooked by investors and companies seeking partners.”

As it has in the past, PCI helped to sponsor the Philly Startup Leaders’ Amplify Philly delegation at SXSW, and also this year led seven University-affiliated startups to SXSW, including Neonur, Viora Health, Avisi Technologies, Avior Analytics, Fiction Mine, Chippin, and Dorothy. 

Arianna Armelli, the founder of Dorothy—a startup that is creating a revamped flood zone mapping system and working to protect homeowners by simplifying the flood insurance process—graduated from the Weitzman School of Design last year and spent six weeks of the summer involved in the Pennovation Accelerator. Still running her business out of the Pennovation Center, it’s been an honor, Armelli said, to attend SXSW with Penn this week.

Talking Monday night, after a jam-packed day of events, Armelli said she had already made multiple connections with potential collaborators and customers, as well as venture capitalists, and had the opportunity to pitch her startup in front of various crowds. Her first SXSW experience came at an ideal time, Armelli said, as she ramps up energy to launch the full Dorothy platform in the upcoming months, before hurricane season.

“Overall it’s been such a great experience,” Armelli said of SXSW. “I am definitely getting exactly what I wanted to out of it. We all are—it’s been so beneficial for all the Penn startups involved.”

Arianna Armelli presents on stage at SXSW
Arianna Armelli, a PennDesign alumna, pitches her startup Dorothy on stage during an event at SXSW.

Armelli was chatting over the phone from an Uber, after she left Valkyrie Intelligence’s headquarters, where a Penn Alumni in Austin event took place. Since 2015, the alumni group has held special SXSW gatherings in collaboration with PCI.

“Our vision was to provide an opportunity for the worldwide Penn community to connect at SXSW and enable innovators to rub elbows in an informal setting,” said Penn alumnus Walter Kalmans, president of Austin-based Lontra Ventures. 

“It helps keep the alumni up-to-date on the innovation that is taking place at their alma mater,” added Penn alumna Emma Vas, president of the Penn & Wharton Club of Austin. “We love meeting the passionate entrepreneurs and learning about their motivations behind their ideas.” 

For example, it was at a SXSW Penn Alumni event two years ago when Kalmans and his wife Andrea first met Ari Wes, who was demonstrating his PCI-affiliated company Ostiio.

“Meaningful relationships like this take root at SXSW,” Kalmans said. “We continue to chat with Ari often and root for their market success.”

Founders of Penn-affiliated startups had the opportunity to network with other University alumni at a Penn Alumni in Austin gathering.

Meaningful—and rewarding—indeed, Actman emphasized, the SXSW trip has been nothing short of fulfilling this year, just as it’s been in the past.

It was, and still is, a “very conscious decision,” said John Swartley, associate vice provost for research and managing director of PCI, to take Penn’s innovation activities on the road to SXSW and other key national conference events. 

“I’m grateful for the backing from Penn leadership, including Dawn Bonnell and Craig Carnaroli, to engage in this type of outreach activity as well as the support and hard work from the PCI and Pennovation teams,” Swartley said. “We look forward to bringing even more Penn startups and technology demos forward next year as well.”