Five UMass Startups Advance to Innovation Challenge Finals
Preliminary round winners have been named for the Innovative Challenge, the university’s premier pitch event in the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. The teams will now compete on April 13 in the finals, where they can receive up to $65,000 in equity-free funding.
Heading for the finals are Sequeschar, Microbeblaster, FUD, Campus Atlas and MIGCIP Innovation Labs AI-Visa, where they will compete for up to $65,000 in equity-free funding at the April 13 finals. Headquartered in the Isenberg School of Management, the Berthiaume Center is the central hub of a cross-campus network of scholars, innovators and entrepreneurs, with a three-fold mission of supporting research, education and practice, all targeted at facilitating the transformation of ideas into business realities.
Sarah Kaunfer, microbiology, Phoebe Lasic-Ellis, individual concentration, Hayley McIsaac, biochemistry and molecular biology, and Simran Jeet, biology, are the team behind MicrobeBlaster, a technology they developed while in the iCons program that prevents bacteria from making and maintaining contact on IV catheters, some 2 million of which are inserted into U.S. patients annually.
The motivations driving the team are personal, Kaunfer acknowledged during the team’s presentation during the Technology Challenge pitch event in November, where they received $23,500 for their startup.
“Both Hayley and I have lost grandparents to hospital-acquired infections that could not be treated with antibiotics,” she said, adding that 30,000 lives are lost annually in the U.S. this way, costing hospitals $45 million and adding an additional two weeks, on average, to a patient’s hospital stay.
Lasic-Ellis added that 40% of blood infections are IV catheter-borne and carry a mortality rate of 25%.
Microbeblaster, they say, is not only made using environmentally friendly chemistry, but outperforms catheters currently on the market that work by continually releasing antibiotics. The Microbeblaster coating can also be applied to other devices, such as pacemakers, artificial joints and ventilators.
Mechanical engineering majors Ethan Gorman, Megan Anderson, Lincoln Wiggan, Jack Sunko, Conor McGovern and Joe Manchester are finalists for their startup, Sequeschar, which proposes to transform the spent grains used by brewers into biochar for carbon capture, soil amendment and renewable energy.
“We all may be familiar with beer, but maybe we don’t realize the environmental impact,” Gorman said in his Tech Challenge pitch. “Producing just one six-pack of beer is equivalent to charging your phone 158 times or burning 1.4 lbs of coal.”
The brewing process generates a massive amount of waste, he said, because 85% of the physical byproduct of brewing is spent grain. Annually it amounts to 36 million tons. While much of the grains are given away to farmers as animal feed, the waste from urban brewers is often sent to landfills.
“In either case, carbon dioxide is rapidly re-emitted into the atmosphere,” Gorman said.
The Sequeschar device uses a thermochemical treatment known as pyrolysis to shift 50% of the carbon in the biomass by transforming it into biochar. It can then be safely stored underground for later use, where it “is a great soil amendment, helping to retain nutrients and water,” he said. The combustible pyrolysis vapors that are also generated during the process can be captured and used to supplement a brewery’s natural gas usage or to dry the fresh grains for brewing.
“Biochar has massive scaling potential through the adoption of new feedstocks such as organic agricultural residues, organic trash and cardboard. We’ve got to keep organic waste out of our landfills,” Gorman said.
Jean-Baptiste Goriou, marketing and legal studies ’21, has partnered with students at College of the Holy Cross, Drexel and Bentley universities to create FUD, a phone app that they say maximizes restaurant turnover and increases customer satisfaction.
The restaurant industry lost more than $240 billion in revenue last year because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, but also because of online delivery surcharges, Goriou said.
“Current online and reservation services charge $249 or more per month and 20 to 30% of the total bill from each online order,” he said. In contrast, the FUD app would charge restaurants a monthly subscription fee and “take 0% from online orders.”
The app would eliminate customer wait times to be seated and receive their food and also the time involved with waiting to pay the bill, he said.
App users can choose a restaurant together within the app, make their food choices and pay prior to arriving at the restaurant.
“You get seated and get your food immediately when you get to the restaurant,” Goriou said, which not only saves customers’ time but also allows the restaurant to increase capacity by turning tables over more quickly.
Undergraduates Ben Burns, mathematics and computer science, Larry Tseng, management and computer science, and computer science majors Conlan Cesar, Nic Asnes and Rohan Bapat designed their Campus Atlas application during the HackUMass IX competition in November, where it won the grand prize and was named Best Software Hack.
Campus Atlas is a navigation guide, which its developers see as a necessity for a large campus like UMass Amherst.
“We all had experienced at one point in our college career where we couldn’t find a certain classroom or find a building on campus,” Tseng told The Daily Collegian. “And there weren’t any good solutions that UMass currently offers for finding your way around campus. That’s why we came up with this idea.”
In addition to showing users the location of the building, classroom or office they are looking for, it could display other useful information, such as office hours or the location of stairs and elevators.
MIGCIP Innovation Labs AI-Visa
MIGCIP Innovation Labs AI-Visa aims to improve visas using a cognitive- and artificial intelligence-driven system that streamlines the application process.
Krishna Chaitanya Rao Kathala, Rahul Gundeti, Sathvik Reddy Kandi and Niharika Pola, all pursuing master’s degrees in data analytics and computational science; Deepshika Reddy Bongunoori, a graduate student in engineering management, and undergraduate Abhi Keerthan Rao, operations and information management systems, are the driving forces behind MIGCIP Innovation Labs AI-Visa.
The personal experiences of two members of the group was the impetus for creating the business; Krishna Chaitanya Rao Kathala's visa was rejected three times, despite having all the required documents and meeting study abroad conditions. Pola also needed help with obtaining her visa.
"I come from a community where women are not even allowed to pursue basic education," Pola says. "My mother always believed that I had the power to change this situation by studying hard. By pursuing higher education abroad I wanted to break the myth and inspire many girls like me toward higher education.
"At one point I lost hope in my dream as I was not confident enough to face the interviewer and sought support from a consultancy," she adds. "They offered me free mock visa assistance and today I'm here pursuing my dream in the United States of America. I want to make this possible for many students like me and that is why I'm most deeply connected to the mission and vision of AI-Visa."
“Preparing a visa application takes six to eight hours on average,” the team members say. “The stakes are incredibly high for individuals applying for F-1 student visas. For those students accepted to universities, the outcome of the visa interview determines their future.”
Hundreds of thousands of student visa applications are denied every year, they say, and many are for reasons that can be avoided or fixed, such as erroneously applying for a visa in the wrong category or displaying low confidence during the interview process.
“Our AI-based platform automates all aspects of visa preparation, from form filling to generating supporting documents and mock visa interviews as well as providing personalized feedback,” the team says.
Their system uses cognitive intelligence-derived technology that simulates complex human psychological processes through artificial intelligence, computer vision, natural language process, data mining and others to “enable social cognitive learning for customers in understanding and predicting human behavior.”
The current process also involves several physical touch points such as finding the right resources for visa interview preparation, having photos taken and applications notarized in-person, they say. The team adds that “In a COVID-impacted world, travelers are actively seeking digital alternatives that do not involve such interactions.”