Two Penn State teams reach finals in international business idea competition

Sean Yoder
July 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Teams led by Penn State students again this year made a strong showing in an online international competition hosted by Ben-Gurion University of Negev, Israel, and in partnership with The Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship (CPSSE).

Team Traceables placed second in the "Triple Bottom Line Challenge," the name of this year’s competition, which featured 205 students who submitted 104 ideas from seven different colleges and universities. In addition, Team Umbrella was selected as one of nine finalists to be featured on the competition’s website. Anne Hoag, director of the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship, served on the international panel of judges.

“After the announcement in March that the rest of the spring semester would be virtual, I wanted to find a way for entrepreneurial-minded students to stay engaged,” Hoag said.  “Ben Gurion University’s invitation to join the Triple Bottom Challenge created just that opportunity for our students.” 

Each year, Ben-Gurion University invites international submissions for a challenge that asks participants to develop an innovative idea to solve real-world problems. This year’s challenge asked for ideas that incorporate the philosophy of the “triple bottom line,” which in addition to profit considers planet and people.

Yossi Shavit, director of the Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at BGU, said they saw an opportunity to incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into the challenge as universities around the world were making the transition to virtual learning.

“By asking students to think about making our current world a better place, we wanted to get students thinking practically and entrepreneurially in a way that could both have an immediate impact on our daily lives and bring students from around the world together over this shared experience,” Shavit said. “This was the first time we ever held a challenge competition completely virtually, and we were amazed to see the level of commitment and dedication students put into this year’s Triple Bottom Line Challenge.”

Team Traceables

Alex Grosek, majoring in finance, led Team Traceables, whose idea was an “online marketplace for project instructions and a local listing and booking service for short-term workspace rental.” Grosek was joined by Traceables teammates recent Penn State graduate Daniel Shoemaker, mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship and innovation (new venture track), who is now pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Penn State; Mitch Kelly, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh; and Samarth Desai, a recent graduate of Harvard University.

Photograph of Alex Grosek

Alex Grosek

IMAGE: Provided

Grosek said he will continue to develop the idea and will be looking to launch it this summer. The team will gather feedback from testers and continue development and design.

Grosek said the idea came to him as he was working through a project for his architecture minor through the Stuckeman School in the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture. He said that while the experience of crafting a desk for his semester-long project had a big impact on him,  it also led him to identify a potential market opportunity he could turn into a business. The idea also had the potential advance some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which were at the heart of the Triple Bottom Line Challenge. In 2015 the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that emphasize “a holistic approach to sustainable development for all.” The goals — which also heavily emphasize considering people with disabilities — seek to address global challenges such as poverty, hunger, climate change, peace and inequality.

Grosek explained that the 16-week class in which he built the desk moved quickly and he ended up with haphazard notes that consisted of some iPhone photos and scattered pieces of paper.

“Looking back on the experience,” he said, “I saw the value that a step-by-step project documentation app could have provided as I put the desk together.”

The app brings the documentation, presentation and sharing of projects all into one space. Creators have their own profiles to show off their work, and direct messaging allows for people to approach creators for commissioned projects or just to share the instructions.

Team Umbrella

Divya Rustagi, majoring in computational data sciences in the College of Engineering, led her team of Penn State juniors comprising Team Umbrella to the finals: Kashish Patel, computational data sciences, and Vaibhav Gupta, applied data sciences.

Last year, Rustagi and her three BGU teammates took third place in the competition, which focused on artificial intelligence. Her participation was a result of the ENTI minor’s Entrepreneurship in Israel embedded course.

The idea for Umbrella consists of an e-commerce platform that helps small business get their products online, an imperative in a pandemic-stricken world.

“As we looked at the news every day about small businesses shutting down or facing irrecoverable losses, we were inspired to come up with Umbrella,” she said. “We realized that what was missing was their online presence and the opportunity for such businesses to grow outside just our local areas.”

"I believe, as aspiring innovators, we’ll be keeping in mind the triple bottom line for all our future ventures. I hope to spread this message to my peers as well." —Divya Rustagi, Penn State junior

Rustagi explained that e-commerce giants like Amazon don’t give good brand visibility for those who sell on the platform, and that people casually say they simply “ordered from Amazon,” when in reality the product comes from another vendor. Umbrella would operate differently, making clear who people were buying from and allowing companies to better build their brand.

Another major aspect to the idea was to improve accessibility by incorporating languages. Rustagi relayed a personal story of trying to teach Google Maps to her father’s driver in India. He struggled with it until she switched it to Hindi, and suddenly it clicked and was more accessible to him.

Screenshot of Zoom call with the three members of Team Umbrella

Team Umbrella, like all teams in the challenge, did their collaboration over Zoom. Clockwise from left are Penn State students Kashish Patel, Vaibhav Gupta and Divya Rustagi.

IMAGE: Provided

“That was a eureka moment for me because I knew that for many small, regional businesses to adopt the online world, they’ll need the accessibility of language, which is currently missing from many platforms. Last year, when I visited Israel, I saw how, when people used the applications built natively in Hebrew (and Arabic), technology looked less intimidating and more friendly," she said.

Finally, location tagging would help to narrow down choices. This is especially useful, Rustagi said, in helping people to not be overwhelmed.

“We gained so much from this experience, whether it was collaborating remotely or thinking about the triple bottom line — people, planet and profit. I believe, as aspiring innovators, we’ll be keeping in mind the triple bottom line for all our future ventures. I hope to spread this message to my peers as well.”

“The Triple Bottom Line Challenge gave Penn State students the opportunity to apply their entrepreneurship and innovation skills outside the classroom and solve real issues related to the pandemic,” said Rob Pangborn, vice president and dean for Undergraduate Education at Penn State. “They rose to the challenge during a difficult time. I congratulate the students of Team Traceables and Team Umbrella on their winning pitches and encourage them to continue developing their startup ideas.”

Penn State competition

Teams from Penn State also competed in the internal University competition, "The Penn State Triple Bottom Line Challenge," sponsored by the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship and judged by Penn State professors Jamey Darnell, assistant clinical professor of entrepreneurship; Jeanette Miller, assistant clinical professor and associate director of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Hoag.

Team Traceables took first place in the Penn State competition, with Team Umbrella as the first runner up. Traceables will be awarded $500 and Umbrella $300.

The Intercollege Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation program is a part of the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship, which is housed in Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more at


Last Updated July 21, 2020