By Mike Kijewski MMP ’10, WG ’12
In 2009, I applied to the Venture Initiation Program (VIP) at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a graduate student in the physics department, with a half-baked prototype of a radiation analysis software package. I considered our product a home run in the making, and figured we’d exit within 6 months.
Our product, grayCAD, helps physicists working in a hospital’s radiation oncology department ensure that they were complying with radiation safety regulations. We had spent all of our time thinking of features that would make the software useful, like color-coded heat maps showing problem areas on architectural drawings. Any time not spent building features (which wasn’t much) was spent making contact with executives at companies that sold medical radiation sources. We had some positive feedback, but no one knocking down our door to write a check.
Shortly after being accepted into VIP, it became clear how much we hadn’t thought about. Our sales strategy was too passive. When I told Rob, one of the VIP advisors, that a VP at a potential customer had seemed very interested, and had given me his cellphone number, but hadn’t responded to my last email, Rob said “Call his cell.” I agreed, and said I would call tomorrow. “No. Call him right now!” Rob stood there and watched as I called the VP’s cell number. That company ended up being our first customer just a few months later.
When we landed our first enterprise customer, we were given a licensing contract that was ten pages long. I was so excited to have a customer willing to write us a big check that I would have signed anything. But Jeff, another VIP advisor, took the time to go through the terms with me, and helped me understand which terms could be problematic for us in the future. He had previously run a company with a licensing strategy very similar to ours, so he had been through all of this before.
During my time in VIP we launched a beta version of our product, signed our first customer, and raised a round of outside investment. While I’d like to think we would have been able to do these things without the help of the VIP, it’s certain that these milestones happened faster and easier with their help.
As a first year MBA student, I was overwhelmed with the number of other students in my class. There are students with almost any background you can imagine, from investment banking to professional athletics. Being involved in VIP helped me identify a group of other MBA students who were focused on starting their businesses at Wharton, making my network much more useful than it would have been otherwise.
Many student entrepreneurs focus on the business plan competition. While it’s helpful to think through all of the issues you’ll likely encounter when launching a business, incubators like Penn’s VIP give students who are actually running a business actionable advice that can significantly increase a business’s chances of success.
If you’re a student thinking about launching a business, I can’t recommend an incubator enough.
Bio: Mike Kijewski (MMP ’10, WG ’12) is product manager of cloud-based oncology tools at Varian Medical Systems. Mike holds a master of medical physics from The University of Pennsylvania, as well as an MBA from the Wharton School with a concentration in Healthcare Management and Entrepreneurship. He was a co-founder of Gamma Basics, a software company focused on building tools for radiation oncology. Gamma Basics was acquired in the fall of 2013.