TEDxPenn: Creating the Sound

By Nadine Kavanaugh

Vocal executive presence. Education Design Studio. Live in the Grey. Listening beyond words. Will rap for food. Hindi a capella. These are just a few of the ideas, phrases, and sounds I encountered during TEDxPenn: Creating the Sound.

It only got stranger, and more fascinating: A future in which human beings become cyborgs in order to extend our senses. Flying robots that locate IEDs. How the diversity in her own family influenced a professor who teaches world music. The talks kept coming, 18 minutes after 18 minutes, the density of ideas reflecting the rich diversity of intellectual engagement available at the University of Pennsylvania every day, but brought into focus by the TED format.

That’s the way it goes with TED talks. They last just 18 minutes (well, some are shorter): long enough for a focused speaker to deeply address one point. The first TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks were posted online in 2006, and by 2009 the number of TED Talk views was over 200 million. TED Talks are cultural phenomenon. But as this number indicates, most of the talks are viewed online. To attend a day of talks in person was a special treat.

The “x” in TEDxPenn indicates that this was “an independently organized TED event,” meaning that while TED lent its name, it wasn’t formally affiliated. Instead, it was put on by a group of dedicated Penn people, students and faculty both, who wanted to bring this experience to the Penn campus, and to bring some Penn ideas to TED.

IMG_0925 smallerWharton Entrepreneurship was a proud sponsor of TEDxPenn, which is how I scored my ticket. Dick Zhang, co-founder of IDENTIFIED, is a Penn undergrad and a member of the Venture Initiation Program, WE’s educational incubator, and when we heard that he was going to be giving a talk about the amazing work IDENTIFIED is doing, we knew we wanted to support it. Dick’s team won the 2012 Y-Prize, which challenged students to develop an idea for a start-up based on robotics from the Penn GRASP lab. IDENTIFIED equips Professor Vijay Kumar’s aerial quadrotors (check out this amazing video to see what they can do) with ground penetrating radar to locate IEDs, a tool that would save both lives and potentially billions of dollars of military budgets.

I have to say, Dick did an amazing talk, flying a quadrotor onto the stage before bounding up himself to deliver an animated description of what the robots are, how IDENTIFIED uses them, and the tremendous good he hopes they’ll do. This is a man who knows how to pitch. Stay tuned for Dick’s own blog post, accompanied by video of his TEDx talk, coming soon.

I may be biased, but I’d characterize TED as having a naturally entrepreneurial bent: these are talks about ideas, given by intelligent and passionate people. In a way, they reminded me of the pitches given by entrepreneurs who are describing a startup idea and why you should invest. And some of the talks at TEDx Penn were literally about entrepreneurship:

  • Barbara Kurshan, Executive Director of Academic Innovation and Senior Fellow at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, talked about the new Education Design Studio (EDSi), self-described as a “hybrid incubator-and-seed-fund,” which is bringing entrepreneurial zeal and know-how to educational ventures.
  • Sid Deliwala, Manager of Penn’s Detkin Lab, the teaching laboratory of the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, not only talked about the student startups that are coming out of SEAS courses, brought three students up on stage to demonstrate their idea for a bike lock that will tell you if someone’s trying to steal your ride.
  • Maneesh Goyal, co-founder of Live In the Grey, explained his startup, which exists to encourage people to “love what they do and live what they love.” That’s a pretty entrepreneurial sentiment.

The day ended on a somber note, with the penultimate talk given by Matthew Sodermann, a veteran of the US Marines and a team member of IDENTIFIED. His relationship to sound has been forever changed by the explosion of an IED that tore his vehicle nearly in half and left him with multiple compound fractures. He’s recovering from his wounds, but it was a sobering reminder of how important IDENTIFIED’s work really is—how much ideas can change the world.