Student Entrepreneurs Find Real-World Applications for Their Design Skills

Photo by: Dan Grogan

[Originally published at SEAS New]

By Charlie Feigenoff

Photo by Dan Grogan

The creativity of engineering students and their teammates from the Commerce School and the College was on ample display at the Engineering School’s Fourth Annual Entrepreneurial Concept Competition, held Nov. 9 for the first time in Rice Hall. The six individuals and teams were vying for funds to commercialize products as varied as a portable desalinization device, a mobile app for ordering takeout meals and an additive for asphalt that would slow icing of winter roads. As venture capitalist and entrepreneur Ramesh Radhakrishnan (SIE ‘85) observed during the awards ceremony that followed the presentations, “Ninety percent of creating a company is identifying a problem. By that standard, each team did a great job.”

Designing a Better Solution

The judges’ choice of the winning team — HD MicroSampling — was clearly influenced by the competence and determination that team members Andrew Andreae (BME ’13), Timothy Higgins (BME ’13) and Jessica Ungerleider (BME ’13) displayed in finding a solution to the problem they identified. The HD MicroSampling Team won a $3,000 prize and the chance to compete in the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup competition, which was held Nov. 16.

The HD MicroSampling Team came in second in the U.Va. competition and the School overall had a very good showing. “SEAS students were members of all the winning teams at the ECup,” noted W. Bernard Carlson, chair of the engineering and society department, professor of science, technology and society, professor of history and director of engineering business programs.

A list of all winners is available here.

The HD MicroSampling Team’s project originated in the Integrated Design and Experimental Analysis Laboratory, a two-semester required course for biomedical engineering majors. After shadowing physicians and nurses in the U.Va. Medical Center, Andreae, Higgins and Ungerleider discovered that finger sticks, much like those used to monitor diabetes, were being used in intensive care units to track blood glucose levels. Because fluctuating blood glucose levels can be life-threatening in intensive care patients, patients were stuck scores of times during their stay.

In response, the HD MicroSampling team developed a three-part system consisting of an in-dwelling catheter, a sealed port and a consumable sampling stick. “We needed to find an affordable, precise and accurate way to access blood,” said Higgins. “Our solution fits the nursing workflow and is adaptable to a variety of point-of-care situations.”

In awarding the team first prize, venture capitalist Dave McLean (EE ’82) praised the group for putting together a clearly articulated plan focusing on a large and well-defined target market.

Putting in the Hard Work

The approach to entrepreneurship on display during the engineering competition was as varied as the products under development. The winner of the $500 third prize — VELO Phase — took a systematic approach to developing a collapsible bicycle helmet that features D3O, a lightweight smart fabric that becomes rigid nearly instantaneously upon impact. “We found that one of the reasons people gave for not wearing a bike helmet is that it’s awkward to carry around when you’re not on the bike,” said Cedric Heckel-Jones (SIE ’14). His partners are Katie Campbell (ChE ’14), Gabriella D’Agosto (BME ’14) and Samuel Ford (Comm ’14).

The winner of the $1,500 second prize, Christophe Lejeune (CS ’13), took a more intuitive and associative approach. He is the developer of V-Pets, a successful virtual pet game originally developed for Windows phones, but soon to be available on all mobile operating systems. Lejeune himself loves fish — and he has translated his enthusiasm into a compelling mobile experience. The judges believe that V-Pets has the potential to evolve into an educational platform for young children.

Regardless of the approach used, all the competitors devoted hundreds of hours to their concepts. HD MicroSampling’s Andreae estimated that team members have spent the better part of 25 hours a week for almost a year, addressing the technical, regulatory and commercial challenges in taking a new medical device to market. “It’s been well worth it,” he says. “If we can make this a reality, we will have made a difference for someone in pain.”

The competitors were grateful to the judges for their input. “The opportunity for feedback from actual entrepreneurs and venture capitalists is incredible,” says VELO-Phase’s Ford. “They can suggest things that we hadn’t thought of, like the necessity of thinking about extending our concept to other products so that we’re not locked into one application.” According to Radhakrishnan, that kind of thinking is exactly what he was trying to promote. “As a judge, I’m not simply critiquing their work,” he says. “I am trying to teach them new ways of looking at the process that can contribute to their eventual success as entrepreneurs.”

Radhakrishnan and McLean were joined as judges by Mark Green, Glenn McGonnigle (ME ’84) and Rick Ramsey (ApM ’76). The prize money was contributed by Douglas (SE ’87) and Lois (CS ’83, ’87) Garland. Letitia Green, a lecturer in the Department of Engineering and Society, served as master of ceremonies.

Carlson is pleased to see the level of expertise represented in the SEAS entrepreneurship competition. “With our business minor and entrepreneurship concentration and in our engineering and society department, we work to provide engineering students with fundamentals that go beyond the standard technical expertise. We offer our students opportunities to learn business concepts, and we encourage them to integrate analysis and judgment and to balance their disciplinary expertise with an understanding of their professional responsibilities. The students who entered this competition are doing just that. I know each of them will be successful in their future professions.”