Virtual vet app wins Penn Wharton Startup Challenge

Competition winner My Virtual Veterinarian, a virtual veterinary portal for pet owners, makes it possible for pets to receive the care they need, when they need it.

Screen shot of a pitch for Virtual Vet with a slide on the top describing a pet owner’s experience with Virtual Vet and the panel headshots in boxes below the slide.
 A screenshot of the Penn Wharton Startup Challenge & Startup Showcase webinar where the winner, My Virtual Veterinarian, pitches their presentation to the judges. Clockwise from top left: Kathryn Stewart, Bikram Bakshi, Felicity Johnson, Jenny Lefcourt, Mona Bijoore.

My Virtual Veterinarian, founded by second year Wharton MBA Felicity Johnson and advised by John Hurst, who is the only graduate student in Wharton and the School of Veterinary Medicine, collected the top prize at this year’s Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship Startup Challenge.

Due to the global health crisis surrounding COVID-19, the competition was held in a virtual setting for the first time on Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2.

Eight finalist teams in the challenge pitched their new ventures to compete for $135,000 in cash and prizes. More than 170 viewers from across the globe tuned in to watch teams compete in the fourth annual event.

“The event spotlights the best and brightest student-led ventures from across the Penn community,” says Cathy Ogur, associate director for Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship. 

It was sink or swim when the ‘Shark-Tank’-style competition started with a group of nearly 30 student-founded startups from across the University. Judges narrowed the field to the final eight.

While the eight finalist pitches were streamed live on May 2, a group of Penn alumni panelists discussed how to navigate the world of entrepreneurship during a global pandemic, moderated by Wharton professor Mauro Guillen.

The webinar discussion, “COVID-19 & Beyond: Entrepreneurship & Innovation in a Recession,” included Davis Smith, founder and CEO at Cotopaxi; Kathryn Stewart, founder and managing director at Cranbrook Capital; and Michael Vaughan, former COO at Venmo and current EIR at Oak HC/FT.

Stewart was asked what kind of advice she had for aspiring entrepreneurs in the midst of the coronavirus crisis with the economy in lockdown.

“Everyone talks about how great companies are formed in these times,” she says. “A lot of it depends on how you are managing your cash flow, and I am seeing the businesses who are pivoting are actually increasing their cash flow. It also depends on knowing your customer and knowing your client’s need, and can you help elevate their ping point.”

Screen shot of a Zoom meeting with Kathryn Stewart, Mauro Guillen, Mike Vaughn and Davis Smith
Clockwise from top left: Kathryn Stewart, Mauro Guillen, Mike Vaughn and Davis Smith 

Smith says existing entrepreneurs can also look at this crisis as an opportunity.

“Current businesses should think about this economic crisis in a more strategic way versus being fear-focused,” he says. “Shifting products versus discounting for existing entrepreneurs is the best way to go. You do damage to the brand when you discount too much.”

Vaughan says working for a start-up for new graduates or anyone else can exhilarate one’s learning experience. 

“If you are graduating and debating whether to go work for a big firm or thinking, ‘Do I work for a startup?’— if you want to be a founder at some point, I would highly recommend working for a startup,” he says. “Even if it’s unstable, and there are a lot of problems in the economy right now. You will learn way more in a few months at a start-up than you will working for a conglomerate.”

This year’s competition proved to be very different from years past for the judges, having to anticipate things that they were not used to because of the virtual setting, says Ogur.

“For instance, for the semifinals, normally the teams would pitch for five minutes and have seven minutes of Q&A,” she says. “We felt that with the virtual format, we needed to adjust that. So what we did was we had teams pre-record their semi-finals pitches, so we could present them to the judges ahead of time to try and preempt technical difficulties.”

The student teams then gave a short, elevator-type pitch followed by a more extended Q&A that was about 25 minutes long.

“This gave the judges more time to interact with the students and less pressure for the students,” says Ogur.

Closeup of a cat sleeping
Tiffany, at rest.

The eight Startup Challenge finalists were selected Saturday morning after two rounds of closed-door pitch sessions in front of entrepreneurs and investors. These teams solved inventive problems across biotech, travel, health care, and fashion sectors.

Above all, one group dominated.

My Virtual Veterinarian connects pet parents with veterinarians for video and chat appointments, providing a unique solution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Felicity Johnson founded the company after experiencing time-consuming medical visits when her cat Tiffany was diagnosed with cancer. 

Through the My Virtual Veterinarian iOS app, pet parents can access their primary veterinarian, or find a different veterinarian who is available for virtual veterinary appointments, and schedule a convenient appointment time. This flexibility extends to the veterinarians, who can schedule appointments that fit their schedule, avoid unnecessary office visits, and access new customers.

Stewart, who was on the panel and also one of the final judges, says My Virtual Veterinarian serves an immediate need for a product already in demand by its users. 

Selfie of John Hurst and his dog Bub
John Hurst and Bub.

“In March, the FDA suspended rules requiring vets to physically examine animals, creating a catalyst for a product with a high and immediate demand,” she says. “The team did a great job communicating the value prop and its impact on a big and immediate problem with a large market. My Virtual Veterinarian’s approach is one of creating a marketplace through user demand, differentiating itself from its competition and enhancing scalability.”

Johnson spoke to Penn Today after the competition about their motivation, Penn’s impact on her career, and future plans. 

What was your inspiration for My Virtual Veterinarian?

My cat, Tiffany, was diagnosed with cancer when I was working in NYC. It was extremely difficult managing her follow-up appointments and my job, because her appointments were scheduled during the middle of the workday. When she became extremely sick, I would call Tiffany’s veterinarian and tell him about how Tiffany was acting and ask for advice on what to do to make her more comfortable. Since he wasn’t always available when I called, I’d work from home so that I could bring Tiffany to the vet if he said that I should bring her in. I often wished that I could schedule an appointment with a veterinarian who could see Tiffany over video and provide advice, rather than having to wait to receive a call back. So, I decided to create My Virtual Veterinarian to help other pet parents find a veterinarian who offers virtual care.  

What is the story behind how your team formed?

John Hurst and I met early on at Wharton because he is the only Penn Vet/Wharton student in [Wharton’s graduate school]. Since I knew that I wanted to create an animal-related start-up, we connected to talk about the pros and cons of the business idea. Fast-forward to a year later, John and I were in two marketing classes together that both incorporated a group project. I pitched My Virtual Veterinarian to both classes in an effort to attract teammates for the group project, and John joined both teams. We started going to veterinary conferences and shadowing veterinary practices together, and the rest is history.

How did you decide on getting involved with entrepreneurship at Penn?

My desire to become an entrepreneur started while interning at Rent the Runway. Jenn Hyman, the CEO, is incredibly inspiring and I was so impressed by the culture that she had created that encouraged everyone to consider themselves a ‘founder in Rent the Runway.’ I applied to Wharton with the intention of starting an animal-related startup. Once I arrived for preterm, I met with Valentina Goutorova, who suggested that I join the Founders Club listserv and apply to join VIP-Community. Both have been great resources to learn about entrepreneurship opportunities. 

Was there a specific course at Penn that helped shape your venture?

 Entrepreneurial Marketing was very helpful for My Virtual Veterinarian. John and I often spoke about how we could apply lessons from the class to My Virtual Veterinarian. One occasion that sticks out is after a class about guerilla marketing, John and I drove to a veterinary practice to shadow and during the drive, we were so excited by the different ways that we could use guerilla marketing for My Virtual Veterinarian. During this car ride, we spoke about creating custom dog-poop bags, which are now placed all throughout Philadelphia.

What are your team’s plans for the prize money?

We will use the funds to build our website so that the experience mirrors that of our iOS app and towards marketing efforts. 

What are your goals for the future of My Virtual Veterinarian?

My Virtual Veterinarian is growing. We are focused on building partnerships with pet-related businesses and would like to hire an individual who loves animals and has expertise in marketing and growth strategy.