The final part of this year’s Innovation Challenge ended on Thursday night, splitting $65,000 worth of seed money between the three winners of the competition: eBiologics, Phytos Therapeutics and Kinase.
The four-part challenge was created by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Massachusetts to help develop student startups. First place winners in previous years have included ElectroPure, Automated Controversy Detection and FogKicker.
Seven businesses competed in this challenge, including AdOutreach, eBiologics, FootCare by Nurses, Guide Dog, Kinase, Phytos Therapeutics and TernBooking. Each competing team had three minutes to make their pitch to the judges, and then the judges had five minutes to ask the team questions.
The event was sponsored by Ernst & Young, the Heiser Family, Norman “Bud” Robertson, Kumar Ganapathy, Jeff Glassman, Darn It! (a clothing repair company) and John & Sally Burke. All of the money used during this competition was philanthropic – none of the money came from tuition dollars or state appropriation.
eBiologics came in first place, winning $30,000 – receiving all of the funding they requested. Alexander Smith, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, said, “Our company makes a patch, non-invasive as a Band-Aid, that will alert you to the possible onset of a serious medical condition.”
The personal health monitor Smith pitched is a simple patch that continuously analyzes sweat using diagnostic protein nano-wires that can measure disease progression. Smith hopes to detect diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Data will be collected in the patch and will be sent to an app that can be accessed on a mobile device or cloud service.
Smith has been working on this business since November but has been participating in the Innovation Challenge since last year. He described his journey as “a rollercoaster” because he had switched business ideas a couple of times.
“It was a lot of hard work to get here. It wasn’t just a snap of the fingers, but I feel very rewarded,” Smith said.
“From here, we are going to be doing business development, validating our business models, we are going to be developing our prototype, we are going to be applying for non-diluted funding and our next goal will be getting a quality, commercial-grade patent,” Smith said.
Phytos Therapeutics came in second place and won $20,000, coming in $5,000 short of the requested amount. Founder Ryan Landis, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, explained how his company “develops and licenses groundbreaking technology to companies who sell products to agricultural and biomedical customers.”
Landis is working to develop sustainable pesticides to fight infectious diseases. He’s created “Phytos X” to fight against infectious diseases in seconds and is ready to start field testing on apple crops and turf grass in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Landis started two years ago in 2016 at the Minute Pitch challenge and has been working on his business since then. He plans to finish his Ph.D. in June and commit himself completely to his business.
“The war on infectious disease is here. Consider me a soldier on the front lines,” Landis said.
Kinase came in third place and won $15,000. Their goal is to create an accurate, low-cost, point-of-care platform for early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer using biomarkers, and in the future, they plan to expand to detect other types of cancers. Nariman Banaei, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, and Amir Ali Jazayeri, an MBA business statistics student at Hofstra University, originally asked for $48,000.
“We have a lot of plans, we have a lot of tests to do… we have a plan,” Banaei said.
Jazayeri added, “As we mentioned in our pitch, our way is clear for us. We are already detecting pancreatic cancer and we want to [detect] six more types of cancer with this platform.”
Jazayeri said their company had come in second place for the Minute Pitch competition but lost the seed pitch competition. Although disappointed, they decided to work harder and compete in the semifinals, which brought them to the finals.
The panel of judges included Eric Ashman, chief operating officer of Group Nine Media, Dianne Doherty, community partner with the Doherty Group, Tom Heiser, managing director of the Blue Sky Associates, Jerry Hong, president of QFour, Inc., Jason Janoff, partner with Ernst & Young, Peter Reinhart, director of UMass’ Institute for Applied Life Sciences and Bud Robertson, the chief financial officer of a public company.
“The innovation challenge has been awesome for sparking my interest both in entrepreneurship and also keeping me focused on continuingly working toward creating some type of business model and a business idea,” Smith said. “Otherwise, it’s floating around, nothing really coming of it, but when you have a competition like this, it incentivizes you to focus on the idea, treat it like a real project and give it attention.”