Success Stories

Since academic year 2005/06, the UMass Innovation Challenge has awarded over $500,000 in awards, supplied by private donors, to 65 different student-led teams. The following success stories represent a sampling of the past participants of the contest who either executed their business plans upon graduation or entered the workforce bringing new ideas and high energy to their jobs.

Dr. Brian Mullen

Team Therapeutic Systems

Competed in the 2007/08 & 2006/07 UMass IC

Founded in 2008 by Brian Mullen while completing his Ph.D., Therapeutic System's first product – the Vaya Vest – is based on over 10 years of research and technology development at the University of Massachusetts.

As a researcher at UMass, Dr. Mullen co-invented the technology used in Vayu, a unique method of applying and controlling the sensory based intervention of deep-touch pressure. After winning a number of grants and awards, Mullen's work began getting noticed by the mainstream press which prompted an out pouring of support and inquiries by parents and caregivers of individuals with autism from around the world. Therapeutic Systems was founded in order to bring his work out of the laboratory and into the hands of the patients that needed it.

In 2006, after competing in his first UMass Innovation Challenge, Brian's research and first prototype were featured on the front page of the Boston Globe's Business and Innovation section and on "These features greatly impact my life, said Mullen in his blog, "I wasn't sure if I was going to re-enter the business plan competition. It was a lot of work and even though I was interested in entrepreneurship I wasn't sure if I had the time; I had clinical studies to run, I was TA-ing, and I had my engineering research to do for my PhD. Yet again it was a parent that influenced me…with tears in her eyes she asked me to make her one of our early proof of concept prototype pressure vests. It killed me to say no, but it wasn't close to ready to be used beyond the walls of the lab. In 2008 I again entered the business plan competition and I applied for an entrepreneurship grant from NCIIA and won both!!"

Therapeutic Systems has since made great strides in its mission to provide better solutions for patients with autism spectrum disorders. In May 2011 Therapeutic Systems launched the first deep pressure application device that uses air pressure. The product, called Vayu (, is now available for sale.

Conor White Sullivan

Team Localocracy

Competed in the 2009/10 & 2008/09 UMass IC

Localocracy is an online platform designed to help citizens learn about local issues, make decisions and have an impact on their government. Only registered voters, using real names, can weigh in on issues. In the summer of 2010, Localocracy was recognized as one of Mass High Tech's "Startup Watch: Five you should follow" companies. In October 2011, the company was acquired by The Huffington Post Media Group. An online report has pegged the deal as being worth under $1 million.

Founders Conor White-Sullivan, CEO, and Aaron Soules, CTO, joined New York-based The Huffington Post Media Group. Conor White-Sullivan is currently Director of HuffPost Labsat at AOL where he is "leading new product development with a focus on increasing user engagement and action...inventing the future of news." He was named a White House Champion of Change in 2011 and listed in the Forbes 30 under 30 for Media 2011.

Dr. Tracy Heckler Panzarella

Team QD Tech

Competed in the 2008/09 UMass IC

Tracy Heckler Panzarella is currently a Senior Research Engineer at Saint-Gobain High Performance Materials. In this position, she investigates next generation abrasive grain products. Tracy was recruited into the position not by luck, but by attracting the eye of Saint-Gobain leadership through her participation in the Innovation Challenge!

Tracy was part of QD Tech, a team that aimed to bridge the gap between current and next-generation solar cells by increasing the efficiency of the current technology, while at the same time keeping production costs near their current levels. By employing a quantum-dot-based optical coating, QD Tech intended to increase the efficiency of both silicon and thin-film cells by 5 percent.