First annual Y-Prize rewards student innovators


Lamont W. Abrams, Jr.

Y-Prize winners IDENTIFIED, made up of Wharton doctoral candidate Andy Wu, left, and Engineering undergrads Kelsey Duncombe-Smith and Richard Zhang.

What happens when you pair business-minded Wharton students with tech-savvy Penn Engineering students, and ask them to come up with a $5,000 idea?

You get the Y-Prize, a new collaboration between Wharton, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Center for Technology Transfer, and the Weiss Tech House that invites students to come up with innovative business ideas centered on cutting-edge technology.

Phase I of the competition began in September 2012 with 13 teams. Groups were charged with developing an idea for a start-up company based on one of three robotics platforms developed by General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab teams: Mark Yim’s modular robots, Dan Koditschek’s hexapod ground-crawlers, and Vijay Kumar’s aerial quadrotors.    

To help flesh out their business plans in preparation for the finals, the four teams that advanced from Phase I were given $500 and paired with student technology consultants from the GRASP Lab.

On Monday, Feb. 4, the final four went head-to-head in the Y-Prize’s Grand Finale, which took place in Levine Hall’s Wu and Chen Auditorium. There, the four teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges consisting of robotics industry members and venture capitalists.   

Each of the four finalists built their business plans around the quadrotors, but focused the technology on very different applications.

Team ARC proposed using the quads for inspecting the status and progress of construction projects. The COPter team suggested incorporating quads into surveillance systems of college campuses and office buildings. Team IDENTIFIED thought the quads could be used to help detect buried improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The RAVEN crew recommended quads as a way to monitor the health and deliver vaccines to herds of cattle.

Prize Y

Lamont W. Abrams, Jr.

IDENTIFIED’s pitch involved equipping quadrotors with ground-penetrating radar to identify improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

After much deliberation, the judges selected IDENTIFIED as the $5,000 Grand Prize winner.  

The IDENTIFIED team includes Engineering undergrads Kelsey Duncombe-Smith and Richard Zhang, and Wharton doctoral candidate Andy Wu. Their pitch involved equipping quadrotors with ground-penetrating radar to identify IEDs, and a laser-based energy transmission system to extend their flight time. An IDENTIFIED-equipped vehicle could lead a convoy, powering a team of ground-scanning quadrotors that scouts the road ahead.  

“We were really excited by this technology,” says Wu. “We saw there was a hole in IED detection methods and that GRASP’s quadrotors could fill it.”

“Plus, there’s the obvious cool factor with these flying robots,” adds Zhang.

The team members plan to concentrate on fundraising to get IDENTIFIED off the ground.

Originally published on February 7, 2013