The six ventures competing for seed money at the 2018-2019 Innovation Challenge Final on April 4 all presented cutting-edge entrepreneurial solutions to real-world problems: technology to hasten wound healing, a video game to teach safe driving skills to teenagers with ADHD, an online microbe-identification service, an affordable device to measure athletes’ speed and motion, proteins that kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and—the competition’s big winner—a video workshop series called Let’s Talk About It, which earned $24,000 of equity-free funding.
“I loved competing against such unbelievable teams,” says Let’s Talk About It founder Ashley Olafsen ’18 BDIC, who calls the Innovation Challenge an “awesome event.” She adds, “Everyone was kind, thoughtful, and had really great ventures.”
Hosted and coordinated by Isenberg’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, the cross-campus event was the culmination of the Innovation Challenge’s four phases, which started in the fall with the Minute Pitch contest and proceeded through the Seed Pitch and the Semifinal. At the Final, seed money was awarded to four of the six featured venture teams, who pitched their business plans to an independent panel of six judges and a crowd of more than a hundred audience members in the Old Chapel. Each team presented four-minute pitches chased by six minutes devoted to questions and answers.
Let’s Talk About It offers a curriculum for middle and high schoolers focusing on areas including body image, self-esteem, mental health, LGBTQIA+ topics, and healthy relationships through a series of 10 online video workshops. Hosted by Olafsen, the videos are already being used in 13 schools in Massachusetts and New York, where they’re presented to students as part of wellness or guidance classes. Olafsen met her business partner, Tom Leary ’19 LARP, through the UMass Entrepreneurship Club, and together they crafted a business plan to bring scalability and profitability to their venture, including outside financing.
Second-place winner Renovare, which received $20,000, is developing a novel bandage to heal skin abrasions faster than current options using a polymer membrane and a tiny control system (a chip) to stimulate replication of cells close to the skin’s surface. Renovare’s team has targeted its product to high-risk consumers, including the elderly, soldiers, laborers, and athletes. A major concern for co-founders E.J. Chen and George Ryan is whether Renovare should handle its own production, distribution, and marketing or license its product to an industry giant like 3M or Johnson.
Microbial Identifier: iSPY netted $7,500 in funding. The team is developing an application programming interface (API) for faster, more accurate identification of bacteria. With the startup’s innovation, tedious identification processes could give way to digitization via a mechanism that detects lines, curves, and other visual characteristics for conversion to machine-readable data. The team previously won the Berthiaume Center’s “Best Pitch” prize at 2019 HackHer413.
Organicin Scientific also won $7,500. The venture aspires to combat the “slow-motion tsunami” of increasing microbial resistance to antibiotics. To that end, the team is developing revolutionary proteins that target the culprits while avoiding collateral damage to the local microbiome.
The two remaining teamsalso offered persuasive pitches. Deadeye has developed low-cost hardware that tracks a wealth of movements by athletes, and DrivingMyADHD helps teens become better drivers via an online, interactive, game-based framework.
In addition to the team prizes, new this year, each finalist venture received $1,000. “All of the competition’s awards came through the generous donations of philanthropists. It is equity-free funding,” remarked Berthiaume Center Executive Director Gregory Thomas. “But the event wasn’t just about the pitch,” he continued. “All of our ventures got checks.” Just as important, he added, was the behind-the-scenes teamwork and venture development. That, he said, included coaching the competing teams.
Olafsen agrees that the process of preparing for the Innovation Challenge was valuable: “It was so wonderful to attend Pitch Workshops and meet the other team members, because it increased the seriousness of the event, and encouraged me to work hard at preparing beforehand.” She and Leary are planning to use the funding they won to hire subcontractors for their video-production team and to attend education conferences where they can present Let’s Talk About It to school administrators in person.
“We are so excited to use the funding to help more students, and truly make a difference in fighting stigma,” she says.
Judges: Michele Equale, Mike Kelley, Jerry O’Connor, Ameeta Soni, Joe Suyemoto, Larry Yusuf
Sponsors: EY, The Heiser Family, Norman “Bud” Robertson, Kumar Ganapathy, Jeff Glassman, Darn It!, John & Sally Burke, PeoplesBank, Joe Suyemoto
Let’s Talk About It: Ashley Olafsen (’18 BDIC), Tom Leary (LARP)
Renovare: George Ryan (chemistry, economics), Yizhuo (E.J.) Chen (chemical engineering), Kevin Cutinella (management), Avi Benmayor (pre-engineering)
Microbial Identifier: iSPY: Anna Maria Miller, (microbiology and informatics), Jeng-Yu Chou (computer science), Hayley Green (microbiology)
Organicin Scientific: Griffin O’Driscoll, Mathew Mitchell, Joshua Mallon (biochemistry); Thomas White (finance)
Deadeye: Jake Lisauskas (accounting/sport management), Daniel Lannan (RPI, electrical engineering), Matt Madden (Springfield College, sport management)