Tech Surge: Purist Takes Top Prize in 2017 Tech Surge Competition

Past Tides
June 2, 2017 By Applied Innovation

UCI Applied Innovation recently concluded its 2017 Tech Surge competition, which took place over the last seven months. Tech Surge was held in parallel with the New Venture Competition (NVC) at the Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at The Paul Merage School of Business. Now in its 11th year, the New Venture Competition (formerly the Business Plan Competition) is a collaborative effort between the Beall Center and Applied Innovation. The NVC serves the Beall Center’s mission to provide hands-on opportunities for students to learn about the process of innovation and entrepreneurship. In Tech Surge, teams of UCI entrepreneurs – students, researchers, and faculty – compete to commercialize ventures centered on UCI-generated intellectual property. In addition to over $20,000 in prize money, winning Tech Surge teams are automatically entered into the Wayfinder incubator program at the Cove, where they will work on their ventures over the summer in a structured experience involving co-working space, mentorship, workshops, and exposure opportunities.

Eighteen competing teams, representing a wide spectrum of UCI research, participated, from nascent companies producing new medical devices for oral hygiene to others developing stroke diagnostics, snake bite treatments, secure dispensation of prescribed opioids, IT solutions for management of patient flow, and robotic systems for in-home physical therapy. Purist, which is developing a method to locally produce medical isotopes to treat cancer, was the overall winner.

The Competition Experience

The Tech Surge competition featured comprehensive programming led by UCI Applied Innovation. The teams’ journeys commenced back in November 2016 at the Tech Surge Mixer held at the Cove, where interested participants learned about available UCI technologies and were encouraged to find potential teammates. The resulting teams applied for Tech Surge in January 2017 and, shortly afterwards, submitted concept papers outlining their business plans. Throughout the competition, Tech Surge teams were coached on their commercialization pathways by UCI Applied Innovation staff as well as assigned mentors from the Experts-in-Residence Network.

In a series of workshops, participants received an accelerated entrepreneurial education that covered business modeling, intellectual property, and FDA regulations. Teams also learned how to apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants – which can be worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars – and had the opportunity to attend real company pitches at the Tech Coast Angels investor group. The teams attended a final workshop on how to give an effective pitch and prepared for their final presentations in one-on-one practice sessions. At the May 9 Tech Surge competition finals at the Cove, teams pitched to a panel of judges in closed-door presentations throughout the day. The judges selected the competition’s winners before joining the teams at an evening celebratory reception. The winners were announced at the awards ceremony for the New Venture Competition on May 12.

Criteria and Prizes

The Tech Surge competition focuses on what UCI Applied Innovation terms a venture’s “fundability.” Tech Surge teams were challenged to prepare and present a slide deck and corresponding 12-minute oral presentations that encompassed their big picture/long-term path towards commercialization and, ultimately, revenue, with a strong emphasis on realistic near- term milestones and the immediate next steps needed to progress to eventual commercialization.

The judges assessed how well teams:

  • solved a problem/pain point, expressed their value propositions, and accounted for the 3W’s (What are you doing, whom are you doing it for, and why do we care?)
  • assessed their market ecosystem, including target market, product-market fit, competitive analysis, and customer discovery
  • outlined a commercialization pathway, including what their company will look like, their path to revenue, and how they will sell their product/service
  • specified financial/technical milestones over 12-24 months, including specific steps, strategies, and associated costs
  • delivered a quality presentation with strong handling of questions and answers

To support the mission to generate commercially viable businesses that use UCI intellectual property, UCI Applied Innovation structured its Tech Surge prizes to bridge the so-called “valley of death” for startups and encourage teams to continue their projects post-competition. Prizes for its four main award categories – Winner, Runner-up, and two Honorable Mentions – were distributed via a two-stage allocation process. Winning teams earned a small fraction of their awards as unrestricted cash prizes at the close of the New Venture Competition. However, the remaining prize money will be doled out to the teams as grant funding throughout their Wayfinder incubator program experience to be explicitly used for commercialization activities. As an added incentive, teams can earn a *Bridging Funds Bonus Award, a 50% increase of their Tech Surge prize money, by completing prescribed milestones during the competition. This additional funding will enable teams to bring their concepts closer to commercialization after their summer stint in Wayfinder ends, to better position them for long- term success. Tech Surge also awarded a cash-only prize honoring an Outstanding Undergraduate team.

Award Winners

The 2017 Tech Surge competition winners were:

Winner ($10,000): Purist – Providing distributed on-demand manufacturing of radioactive ingredients to treat cancer.

Runner-up ($7,500): APIC Diagnostics – Developing a non-invasive, rapid, and economical point-of care test solution for malaria in order to facilitate error-free testing and epidemiological analyses of health records.

Honorable Mention ($2,500+$1,250 Bonus*): Syntr Health Technologies – Utilizing mechanically enriched fat-derived stem cells to reduce the burden of diabetic foot ulcers and prevent amputations.

Honorable Mention ($2,500 + $1,250 Bonus*): NanoShield Biotix – Developing a germ-killing texture inspired by nature with surface applications in industries ranging from ophthalmology to consumer products.

Outstanding Undergraduate ($1,000): Salux Diagnostics – Implementing a first- of-its-kind burn wound imager for use in clinical and urgent care settings to improve patient burn injury care.

The Tech Surge competition was managed by UCI Applied Innovation staff members Doug Crawford,, Senior Licensing Officer, and Hayley Young,, Assistant Director, New Venture Group.

Tech Surge Winner Spotlight: Purist

The idea for Purist started a few years ago. “Back in 2011, one day after class, my professor drew a doodle on the whiteboard,” said Leila Safavi, a chemical engineering post-doc. At the time, Safavi was starting a master’s degree in chemical engineering at UCI and considering pursuing a Ph.D. Her professor and graduate advisor, Mikael Nilsson, knew of Safavi’s interest in the medical field.

Nilsson proposed a project to develop a method to use small research reactors for producing medical radioisotopes to solve a dire supply issue. Medical radioisotopes are an important imaging, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool in medicine. At present, the United States is heavily reliant on aging foreign reactors for medical radioisotope needs. There are eight main reactors around the world that create radioisotopes that are shipped to the U.S; only one exists in North America, and that is set to shut down next year.

Nilsson had funding for a research project based on a method used to separate radioactive products in a nuclear reaction, called the Szilard-Chalmers method, which was published in Nature in 1934. “What if we could implement this more than 60 year-old method in small research reactors at universities for domestic radioisotope production?” Nilsson asked Safavi.

Safavi was hooked. “We combined the Szilard-Chalmers method with Professor Nilsson’s vision and developed a technology with a prototype that could benefit from this radioisotope production technique,” Safavi said. “Ever since then, he has been my strongest supporter.”

The Purist scientists needed to quickly develop business skills and learn to pitch their ideas. This past fall academic quarter, Safavi and Nilsson attended a series of I-Corps workshops called ZAP and Boom to accelerate their learning curve. The I-Corps program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), trains scientists to become entrepreneurs by pushing them through a rigorous process of customer discovery and market analysis in which they have to set up telephone and face-to-face interviews with 15 potential customers per week. “It’s a reality check for the company and helps them shape the development of their new products,” comments Gisela Lin, Deputy Director, Center for Advanced Design & Manufacturing of Integrated Microfluidics (CADMIM) at UCI.

During the process of collecting market research, Safavi and Nilsson also learned from their peer Tech Surge competitors’ experiences with financial projections and commercializing laboratory research. “In the initial workshops, I thought it was good to step outside the box and talk to people I didn’t know,” Safavi said.

As part of the Tech Surge competition, Safavi recently had the chance to observe a company pitch to the Tech Coast Angels, an early-stage investor group that meets at the Cove. “The Tech Coast Angels screening was very helpful to see when you get to the position to seek money, what the key financial questions you must answer are,” Safavi said. “It is good to see the respect between the people asking for money and the investors.” According to Safavi, the resources offered by UCI Applied Innovation and coaching by its Experts-in-Residence gave her team “tremendous support” in this process.

The next step for Purist, as the team continues to conduct its research and development, is to learn more about the operations of the facilities that produce medical radioisotopes. They hope to partner with universities that have research on nuclear reactors.

Photo: The Paul Merage School of Business

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