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Collegeville high schooler's app a finalist in global competition

Manshu Sharma heads into the new year with designs on what would be an enormous accomplishment:  The 17-year-old's app company is a contender for top honors in a global competition of start-ups.

Winner gets a free trip in March to Johannesburg, South Africa, to make a presentation to the Global Entrepreneurship Congress.

Whatever happened to the days of an after-school job at an ice cream stand? Or delivering newspapers, as Damian Baraty, 48, instructor of computer science and Sharma's adviser at the Hill School in Pottstown, did in his youth?

"Being a kid in the 1970s ... the internet wasn't a thing," Baraty said.

Today, it's the highway to entrepreneurship for kids before they even make it to college. And Sharma is riding in the fast lane.

A native of India who lives with his parents in Collegeville, Sharma cofounded MeetHere over the summer with three other high school students from Texas, California, and Florida he met in July at the University of Pennsylvania's Management and Technology Summer Institute.

One of the assignments was to come up with a start-up idea, and develop a prototype and business plan around it.

"It was a really rigorous camp," Sharma said.

For some time, he had been kicking around an idea for helping friends meet up more easily. His team decided to go with it for their project. On July 28, they launched the free MeetHere app on Google Play for Android devices, and it has been downloaded 50 to 250 times a day, Sharma said. As the company's head of iOS development, he expects to have a version ready for iPhones within weeks.

MeetHere's target market is high schoolers and people in their 20s. Sharma would not disclose the company's revenue, which comes from advertising.

"We hope to eventually make the app something that the professional can use, too, to meet with clients," he said.

Here's how it works: When users open the app, they can navigate to a "friends" screen, where they can select the names of those with whom they want to meet. Another click takes them to a map indicating each person's location. Up pops a collection of locations equidistant to all designated friends, and an option to filter those choices by three categories: food, fun, or studying.

By pressing down on a selected meeting place, a user can send a text to selected friends providing a link to the location, which can be copied into Google Maps.

With MeetHere, Sharma not only wants to make organizing meetings easier, he also hopes to debunk the prevalent talk of technology's isolating effect.

"Technology is seen as something that is driving us apart," he said. "This app is showing that technology is something that can help facilitate bringing us together."

It proved impressive enough to earn MeetHere designation as one of the world's 10 "hottest start-ups" in 2016 by CNBC. Pitching their business on a virtual stage in the network's annual Start-up Open, MeetHere competed against 1,017 businesses from 101 countries. It is the only U.S. finalist. The winner will be decided Jan. 5 and make the trip to South Africa for the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in March.

As a finalist, MeetHere is provided mentors to help with business development, including securing investors. Kush Singh, 18, of Dallas, the company's chief executive, is handling that.

"There are some start-ups in the history of the competition that have doubled or tripled after listening to mentors' advice," said Sharma, who added that his priority is to make sure MeetHere doesn't get too far ahead of itself. "This is a really big achievement for us. We're extremely proud of it. Our mindset is to just keep working and to make it as good as it can be."

Not that he isn't busy enough. Sharma's extracurriculars at the Hill School include president of student government, chief executive of the robotics team, assistant coach of the debate team, head of peer tutors, head of marketing analysis on the school's economic council, and member of the student philanthropy council.

It was an advanced-placement economics class at the Hill that ignited his passion for business, said Sharma, who has a heavy focus on altruism.

"I don't really see it as a way to make money," he said. "My job is to use the skill at my disposal to solve problems in society."

That's not to say the founders of MeetHere wouldn't consider a sales offer.

"We're open to options," Sharma said. "We would rather keep on working on the company ... unless a very, very appealing opportunity presents itself."

But first, Sharma has to conquer a more immediate goal: graduating in the spring. Then it's off to college, where he wants to major in computer engineering and marketing.