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UW’s Fisher Innovation Launchpad Announces 10 Finalists

October 16, 2018
logo of the Fisher Innovation Launchpad
Ten innovative businesses created by UW graduate students are finalists that will compete for $125,000 in seed funding to grow their businesses during the Fisher Innovation Launchpad. Teams will make their presentations Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 8:15 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in the Wyoming Union Ballroom. (Logo courtesy of WTBC)

Ten innovative businesses formed by University of Wyoming graduate students are finalists that will compete for $125,000 in seed funding to grow their businesses.

They range from a company that reduces dependence on beehive yields by modifying an oil-seed plant to another business creating diagnostic software to treat a common autoimmune disease.

Teams will make their presentations during the Fisher Innovation Launchpad Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 8:15 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in the Wyoming Union Ballroom.

“We’ve slightly rebranded the program this year, from Challenge to Launchpad,” says Fred Schmechel, assistant director of UW’s Wyoming Technology Business Center. “We did this because inclusion is important to us and, while the Challenge has always referred to a deeply personal and internal process that our entrepreneurs go through, we learned that there were some students who were turned away by this language.

“Reframing the program to the Launchpad helps these UW students understand that this isn’t a competition against others, but rather an ongoing program to help them find the support and resources they need to build innovative companies here in Laramie.”

The Fisher Innovation Launchpad, which began in 2016 as the Fisher Innovation Challenge, is for new, independent businesses -- in the seed, startup or early-growth stages -- focused on technology and/or innovation. The seed fund was made possible through the financial gift of Donne Fisher, the Launchpad’s namesake, and was matched by the UW Office of Research and Economic Development.

The Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), a business development program of UW that has business incubators in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, is administered by the UW Office of Research and Economic Development. The WTBC is a not-for-profit business incubator that provides entrepreneurs with the expertise, networks and tools necessary for success.

“The Fisher Innovation Launchpad is a natural applied outcome of a student’s education at UW,” says Dave Bohling, the WTBC interim director. “It’s an opportunity to take what they have learned here in classes and build something tangible with it.”

The qualifying businesses named finalists are as follows:

-- PenBox, founded by Jacob Wild, a master’s degree student from Laramie majoring in computer science, and Mike Borowczak, a UW assistant professor of computer science. Cybersecurity solutions generally target large entities and can be very expensive to implement. This leaves small to midsize companies vulnerable. PenBox proposes a hardware/service business model where a physical box probes likely security access points (“Penetration Box”), and the principals then make integrated solutions available to mitigate those access points.

-- Brass Genes, founded by Marcus Brock, a postdoctoral research associate in botany. This company has a concept for modifying a trait of a commercially important oil-seed plant to potentially dramatically enhance natural pollination. This would reduce the dependence on commercial beehives for increasing seed yield.

-- ASIMICA, founded by Nikolai Mushnikov, a graduate student in molecular biology from
St. Petersburg, Russia, and Grant Bowman, a UW associate professor of molecular biology. Industrial production of biomolecules in the pharmaceutical industry is commonly performed using stirred tank reactors in batch processing. This uses bacteria or algae as the “factory” units for producing the final protein or chemical product.

Unfortunately, the produced material is often toxic to the factory biology in high concentrations, so that biology is susceptible to mutations and complete loss of production. ASIMICA has a concept for altering the factory bacteria/algae to enable continuous cyclic production of target products. 

-- CS3, founded by Behzad Reza Ahrabi, a staff scientist in mechanical engineering, and Dimitri Mavriplis, a professor in mechanical engineering. The product is a software package that is used for physical simulations. It has been designed primarily for compressible flow simulations over complex geometries. However, various components of this package can be used for many other applications.

-- Deep Winter Games, of which Spencer Ollila, a senior from Laramie majoring in computer science, is one of the collaborators. The main vector for customers will be a tool set enabling multiplatform compatibility for small and independent game companies. This will allow them to offer similar functionality that larger game development companies have, without the significant overhead costs involved in developing a game for multiple platforms at once. Marketing of this tool set will be complemented by the further development of a cart-racing game, which will help fund the company in its early stages.

-- TABI, of which Ph.D. ecology students Mallory Lai, of Denver; and Maya Gans, of Hollywood, Fla., are collaborators. The TABI product is probabilistic diagnostic software aimed at assisting general physicians in diagnosing and treating the most common autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The product will be a user-friendly app that uses statistical inference given patient data. Doctors will be able to input symptoms, laboratory tests and patient demographics into the software as a service platform to receive real-time probabilities regarding a Hashimoto’s diagnosis and patient response to treatment. 

-- VisibleFlow, whose collaborators include Ben Noren, a UW chemical engineering graduate student from Ironwood, Mich., and Leann Bentley, a recent UW graduate in marketing from Laramie. VisibleFlow aims to rapidly prototype complex microfluidic chips. A microfluidic chip is a stamp-size system that is used in many different industries, including biomedical, pharmaceutical, engineering and diagnostics. These microfluidic chips are popular because they enable better data quality, with less material and maximal ease of use. One of the drawbacks to microfluidic chips is that they are extremely difficult to make due to time-consuming manufacturing and the danger of harsh chemicals. VisibleFlow aims to change the paradigm of the microfluidic chip landscape by significantly simplifying the process while providing greater design complexity. VisibleFlow’s process is faster, safer and more environmentally sustainable.

-- Agate, founded by Feng Guo, a UW graduate student from Nei Mongol, China, majoring in chemical engineering, and Saman Aryana, a UW assistant professor of engineering, focuses on indoor air pollution. Agate plans to build both a filter and filter-housing module that incorporates active photocatalytic breakdown of volatile organic compounds in household, factory or automobile cabin air.

-- Deep Belief, founded by Spencer Sharpe, a lead data scientist from UL LLC and a graduate student from Cheyenne majoring in electrical engineering. The Deep Belief service intends to visualize data through semantic clustering, enabling customers to quickly and deeply navigate and understand the datasets analyzed.

-- SciTech Energy, of which Morteza Akbarabadi, a postdoctoral research associate in petroleum engineering from Chaloos, Iran, is a collaborator. Enhanced oil recovery techniques (EOR) boost the hydrocarbon production by increasing the oil’s mobility. To find the best choice of EOR techniques for each field, specific experiments need to be performed. SciTech Energy designed a benchtop unit that will be able to measure and calculate the essential pore-scale parameters that lead to the best choice of EOR techniques for each oil field.

The panel of judges includes business leaders Teresa Nealon, Christine Langley, Mike Kmetz, Sarah Reese and Jerad Stack.

“We’re very excited about our judging panel this year,” Bohling says.

Six teams will receive business counseling, one year of free rental space in the incubator and the opportunity to approach the Fisher Innovation Fund for startup capital. The four to six teams not funded by the fund will still receive space, rent-free, in the incubator for a year, and business counseling.

“In the past two years, the Fisher Innovation Launchpad has launched more than a dozen startup companies here in Wyoming,” Bohling says. “A quick survey of our winners shows that they have created about a dozen jobs so far, and they are continuing to get grant funding and develop new technologies and intellectual property as they do it. This year, we have 10 viable companies that could launch, whether they receive a portion of the $125,000 or not.”

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