While University of Pennsylvania student William Fry was studying abroad in Germany, he came across a common problem in software development.
He had been freelancing in programming to earn extra money but found that a lot of the jobs he was doing were very redundant: developers have to rewrite the same code over and over again, and it still costs the client the same amount of money.
His proposed answer to the problem: An early-stage software company called SolutionLoft which he co-founded with Penn alumnus Jacob Wallenberg last spring. The project has now earned him the 2017 President’s Innovation Prize.
As a President’s Innovation Prize winner, Fry, a senior majoring in international studies and business in the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania, will receive as much as $100,000 to implement SolutionLoft and a $50,000 living stipend. Founded by President Amy Gutmann last year, the President’s Innovation Prize is intended to help Penn students design and undertake innovative, commercial ventures that make a positive difference in the world. Fry will also be able to take advantage of dedicated co-working space at the Pennovation Center, as well as continued mentorship from the Penn Center for Innovation.
“It just takes a big weight off our shoulders,” says Fry. “Instead of having to focus on trying to pool together money from a bunch of disparate sources and potentially giving up a stake in the company, we're able to just focus on building the company and having the impact we want to have.”
SolutionLoft is designed to dramatically increase the speed of software development while also decreasing the cost by leveraging reusable code. Fry relates the concept to the printing press.
“Before the printing press you had to spend enormous amounts of resources to publish more than one copy of a book,” he says. “What the printing press did was create moveable type, and that took out a ton of the labor. It’s just figuring out which pieces of type to use and in what order. We’re trying to do that with software.”
When a project comes in, a project manager talks to the client to understand what is wanted and then see which pieces of that moveable type already exist and which pieces need to be created.
According to Fry’s mentor, Jeffrey Babin, an associate professor of practice and associate director of the engineering entrepreneurship program in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the key areas in this project are modularizing, or developing blocks of software, and building a community of developers that contribute these blocks.
At the moment, SolutionLoft’s team members are mainly working on back-end software. They help with data extraction, searching for leads, tracking competitors’ prices and integration. They have been running trials with clients for the past 10 months, and are currently expanding to clients in financial services.
Fry says he was drawn to programming at a young age because one could create almost anything both cheaply and quickly. His father, an electrical engineer, designed computer chips, so Fry often took apart his old computers to see them.
In high school, he ran an app development company creating iOS apps for nonprofits such as the Parks and Recreation Association of North Carolina.
But after traveling to Germany in high school, Fry decided he wanted to major in international studies and to teach himself how to program on the side.
In addition to the social impact that comes from commoditizing software and promoting economic growth via technology, SolutionLoft is also adopting a 1-1-1 approach geared towards diversity in tech.
The long-term goal of SolutionLoft, Fry says, is to automate programming. The company will have the largest library of labelled code, which will allow anyone to do anything for next to nothing.
“The direct value would be that you're allowing anyone who has a business to have access to custom tools,” Fry says. “It promotes economic growth.”
They’re also mobilizing a huge team of developers that are on demand, says Fry, which will be important during the next decade when there are issues with retooling the work force and creating more jobs. Outside of spinning up outbound sales, they also plan to use the funding to hire a software developer to run product.
In addition to the President’s Innovation Prize, SolutionLoft has also received grants from the Penn Wharton Venture Initiation Program Accelerator, or VIP-X; the Wharton Innovation Fund; and PennApps Accelerator.
Through VIP-X, Fry and Wallenberg had access to some shared space and received one-on-one mentoring and advisory services to guide them through product development, customer and market development, the operations aspects of it and funding.
“Will listens to everything and is constantly processing it and contextualizing it in his business,” Babin says. “I think that's why it's fun to work with him. They're going to see some good results from it.”
Fry describes the process of building SolutionLoft as a sort of “Penn-fest.” All of their advisors are from Penn and many of their developers are either Penn students or alumni. They’ve also gone through QuakerNet and pooled all of the alumni for client research.
He says he’s interested in chatting with anyone in the Penn community in financial services who is interested in leveraging unique sources of data.
Babin says he always hopes that the President’s Innovation Prize is going to somebody who would have forged ahead with their business anyway, and Fry is no exception to this.
“The President’s Innovation Prize is a phenomenal enabler of their entrepreneurial ambition and drive,” Babin says. “I think that's the role that Penn should play: We're enablers, facilitators and sources of resources for students’ entrepreneurial ambitions. When this is paired with students that have already committed to their business, it's the best thing because it provides them with resources that allow them to not have to worry and really focus on growing and scaling a business.”