Jenna Gustafson and Megan Cala, doctoral candidates in the Chemical
Engineering department, brought their idea for a breathalyzer for cancer
screening to the Innovation Institute’s Startup Blitz not knowing what
Twenty-four hours later they left with two potential new team
members, a $1,000 cash award and plans to advance their idea next
semester in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition.
Gustafson and Cala were among the nearly 50 students who turned out
at the O’Hara Student Center to pitch their ideas and work with an
experienced entrepreneur in residence to craft a customer value
proposition and then pitch their ideas to a group of VIP judges from
local startup accelerators. Click here to view a flickr gallery of the event.
“It was really helpful to have two people join the team who hadn’t
heard of our idea until the Blitz started,” Gustafson said of recruiting
fellow engineering doctoral student Henry Ayoola and Chidi Nurakpuda,
an undergraduate biology major, to the team after the initial round of
student pitches narrowed the teams down from nearly 30 to eight.
“They brought a new perspective and allowed our concept to evolve
over the day. Also, speaking with the entrepreneurs-in-residence really
helped us narrow down a product and how to market it, as well as giving
us the confidence to sell our idea. We were really pushed to stretch
beyond our comfort zones,” she said.
Gustafson’s team, under the name Common Sense, took second place in
the pitch contest. First place went to another team, Maternal
Assistance, which is also primarily comprised of students from the
Swanson School of Engineering.
Maternal Assistance team is developing an algorithm that predicts
risk of maternal hemorrhage based on a set of clinical tests routinely
performed upon arrival for labor and delivery.
Teammates include Michelle Pressly and Kutay Sezginel, graduate
students in the Chemical Engineering Department, Alex Wallace, a senior
Mechanical Engineering student and Toby Sheung, a senior Neuroscience
“The experience at the Blitz helped me learn about how the startup
process works, something I had little knowledge of beforehand,” Pressly
said. “Additionally, the process aided in my ability to articulate this
idea in an accessible way. I learned a lot from each of the EIRs and my
teammates, who challenged me to think of multiple perspectives on this
idea and approach.”
Pressly said her team also plans to move the idea forward to the Big
Idea competition next semester. Entering its 10th year, the Big Idea
competition is one of the largest idea pitch competitions in the region,
with $100,000 in cash awards, including a $25,000 top prize.
Third place and $500 went to the Ghost Trekkers team of Mackenzie
Coat of Arts & Sciences, Sridhar Velagala of Electrical and Computer
Engineering, Ev Durazo of Graduate School of Public & International
Affairs and Zhengjia Fu, of Arts & Sciences. The team, led by
Coates, is developing an streaming Internet show about ghosts. Coates, a
recent transfer to Pitt, recently filmed an intro for the show at the
Cathedral of Learning and is hoping to begin streaming episodes before
Babs Carryer, director of education and outreach for the Innovation
Institute, said she was overwhelmed by the number of students who
pitched ideas at the Blitz and said she urges students whose ideas did
not advance to the second day to not give up.
“Often an initial idea needs additional exploration and refinement,
what we call a ‘pivot’, to be successful,” she said. “I will be
following up with each of the students who pitched their idea on the
first night of Blitz and suggest they reach out to one of our
entrepreneurs in residence to discuss ways to improve their ideas so
that they might participate in upcoming programming and competitions.
Carryer said another Startup Blitz will be held in January, and
applications for the Big Idea competition will be accepted beginning in
Image above: Michelle Pressly, center, and members of the Maternal Assistance team
Kutay Sezginel, left, and Alex Wallace, right, work on their
presentation prior to the Startup Blitz pitch competition.
Innovation Institute, 10/16/2017
Contact: Paul Kovach