The 2017 ACC InVenture Prize, aka You've Done Nothing With Your Life Compared With These College Students

You think I'm joking, but you just wait. 

  Duke University student Cade Netscher  pitches his innovation, Neurun, at the ACC InVenture Prize competition. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

Duke University student Cade Netscher pitches his innovation, Neurun, at the ACC InVenture Prize competition. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

I don't know what you were doing in college, but I can assure you that I was not creating a company, building emerging technology, or inventing anything that required a patent. (I did once help some guy friends build a potato gun that would reach across the courtyard to the apartment door of their arch-rivals, but I don't think that was patentable ... nor, in retrospect, was it actually all that intelligent to do.)

However, these college students of the Atlantic Coast Conference have loftier goals than I did: They want to win the ACC InVenture Prize and take home $30,000 in prizes ($15,000 for a first-place win, $10,000 for the runners-up and $5,000 for audience favorite).

If you like watching those young entrepreneurs on "Shark Tank," you're gonna love this. 

The ACC InVenture Prize is an innovation competition made up of 15 teams of undergraduate students who have each been selected from their respective ACC universities. Now in its second year, the 2017 ACCIP drew more than 4,000 initial student applications.

The narrowed-down 15 teams first spend a day in a preliminary round in front of judges from across the ACC universities and then the top five teams compete in front of a live audience and a panel of unaffiliated, expert judges. It's a younger, slightly kinder version of "Shark Tank," and it's broadcast live (no pressure there).

The ACCIP is a collaborative effort across ACC universities that's meant to "stimulate undergraduate entrepreneurial activity and increase student-faculty engagement, to celebrate and highlight the exceptional creativity and ingenuity of [their] students, and to inspire a greater sense of camaraderie across the conference."

While the best-represented team was certainly Georgia Tech (since it was, you know, hosted on its grounds at the Ferst Center), it was a hostly contested battle with loud audience supporters for each school. My fellow Lofter, Tami, came out with me and we did our best to cheer on the home team ... and we maaaaaay have been bribed with some free T-shirts. (She also took pictures since my phone died and she is a social media maven, so all photos here due to her prowess with an iPhone!)

The Pitch Recaps

Neurun: Duke University | Inventor Cade Netscher calls Neurun "the Yelp for racing events coupled with interactive virtual tours, designed to mentally prepare you for race day." He says all joggers face similar mental and psychological hurdles, walking up to the starting line unprepared for the challenges ahead because all their brain has been given is a flat map made up of lines and dots.

Cade Netscher with Neurun, Duke University. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

But with Neurun, joggers have the opportunity to virtually "run" the course and turns those lines and dots into data for their brains. The program features high-quality virtual views of the race course, and even allows users to "run" with a lead pacer and in a similar pace group, so they can overcome challenges together. This mental preparation makes all the difference, Cade says. Spectators can also use the information to choose where on the course to watch the race, and where the best locations are to encourage runners based on psychological difficulty at those particular points in the courses. 

In terms of revenue, Neurun partners with races, making a $2 fee on each race package. They also get a percent of any registrations for the race made through the app.  

The judges asked about scale-up strategy with so many races available (Neurun has contract workers who go out just before races, when the roads are closed, and gather footage of the empty courses; they also partner with a scooter company for filming, and use new technology that's only been available in the last five to six months); how they reach being a $1 billion business if the U.S. market is only $34 million (they consider the registration fee only a start, and plan to partner on the entire race process, which includes lodging, plane tickets, etc., for both runners and for spectators); and if the app could do things like suggest running music (since they're using the latest neuroscience, they can not only suggest the best music, but easily switch to the type of music designed to help the most in more challenging parts of the courses)

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Tech Wound Solutions: Virginia Tech |  The Tech Wound Solutions team, made up of Juliana Downey, Elisabeth Rebholz, Tucker King and Kim Wyluda, has created "Kare Powder, a topical, advanced wound care dressing that enables faster and more effective healing for chronic wound care patients."

Juliana Downey, Elisabeth Rebholz, Tucker King and Kim Wyluda with Tech Wound Solutions, Virginia Tech. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

If I lost you there, come back: In the U.S., there are 6.5 million chronic wound care patients (think: elder care, diabetes patients, obesity, etc.) who don't have consistent, effective ways to heal those wounds, and their immobility makes them worse and worse. What's more, upwards of $25 billion is spent annually in the U.S. to treat these chronic wounds, and the more than 3,000 products out there currently fail to do so because they take the cheaper regulatory pathway of "me too" versus innovation.

Tech Wound Solutions aims to disrupt that industry with Kare Powder, a topical dressing that "employs a unique Trojan Horse technology that initiates the self-destruction of bacteria in infected wounds." They plan to use any prize money toward their IDE application and clinical trials, with a goal of getting it to market by 2021.

The judges wanted to know if Kare Powder would be effective against staph infections (yes, it could be used there, but the target is actually more chronic wounds, though the "Trojan horse" technology is highly tune-able and can be adjusted to other doses or uses); if the IP was owned by Virginia Tech, what's the strategy to protect it while still getting the exposure to review and testing by peers (they have a licensing and options agreement ready to go); do they have access to business expertise to solidify their business case (they have been advised by business professionals, but are ready to learn more and meet with experts for things like manufacturing on a greater scale); does the powder wash off (no, it congeals to the wound); and what's the distribution plan with healthcare facilities (they're working with partners in the healthcare space to distribute, and are in talks with some big companies as well as smaller ones with existing healthcare relationships they could leverage). 

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CauteryGuard: Georgia Tech | The CauteryGuard team, composed of Jack Corelli, Hunter Hatcher, Dev Mandavia and Devin Li, say they've created "a safer electrocautery device [that] seamlessly integrates automatic retractability without sacrificing usability, which allows it to eliminate any chance of initiating a surgical fire or inflicting cautery burns to either the user or the patient in the operating room."

Jack Corelli, Hunter Hatcher, Dev Mandavia and Devin Li with CauteryGuard, Georgia Tech. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

In case you didn't know (I didn't), electrocautery devices are used in medical situations (from blood blisters to open-heart surgery) to remove tissue and to stop bleeding, and they have tips which heat up to 1200 degrees Celsius. Even when the device has been turned off, the tip remains hot for quite some time. If that sounds dangerous, that's because it is — 85 percent of chiefs of surgeries experience self-inflicted wounds from the devices each year. They also carry a high risk of causing burns to the patient and igniting anything flammable (to the tune of being the initiator in over 450 surgical fires annually in operating rooms). 

Existing manufacturers address these risks in their materials, and the American Society of Medical Technicians has policies about their use, but nobody has actually come up with a solution. 

Enter: CauteryGuard, a patent-pending electrocautery device with an automatic retractability feature (much like clicking a pen). The device automatically turns off when retracted, and in fact must remain clicked "on" to continue heating. In addition, the device costs only a small fraction more to manufacture than the existing options on the market.

The judges asked about the downsides or trade-offs from the current options (based on conversations with the many facilities which have already reached out to the team, the small upcharge is more than outweighed by the savings from minimizing the risks); what regulatory issues they'd need to influence to break into the market (the team has regulatory affairs experience, and feels confident in getting approval for the U.S. market, though of course other countries would need to be addressed on a one-off basis); the team mentioned that they'd had 18 letters of intent already sent in, who's interested in this (hospital directors, as well as clinicians, including roles like orthodontists); does the push-button facet hinder dexterity (it's actually the opposite doctors have found that it gives them pinpoint accuracy as the device is only used for spot treatments, and it's easier to use in confined spaces); and have they gotten any pre-orders (they're working with smaller sites first, which order around 600 per year, and will be moving into outpatient spaces, which would order more like 6,000 per year).

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AgroSpheres: University of Virginia | AgroSpheres (made up of Payam Pourtaheri, Ameer Shakeel, Joey Frank, Sep Zomorodi and Zach Davis) is "a biotech company that gives farmers precise control over their harvesting schedule by degrading excess pesticides into a non-toxic derivative, allowing the farmer to harvest their produce on-demand while complying with the Pre-Harvest Intervals set by the EPA."

Payam Pourtaheri, Ameer Shakeel, Joey Frank, Sep Zomorodi and Zach Davis with AgroSpheres, University of Virginia. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

Currently, farmers must wait a certain period of time after they've applied a pesticide before they can harvest the crop (different crops and different pesticides have varying PHIs). Now, I know you're saying that as a consumer that you'd certainly prefer pesticides to be leached out of the crop before you eat it, and I agree. But here's the problem: Say you run a vineyard, and you've sprayed your grapes with a pesticide that has a PHI of 14 days. But in a week, you're looking a giant storm that's likely to demolish your entire crop. You're stuck: You can't harvest the grapes per the EPA, so you have to just wait for the storm and hope it doesn't do much damage. 

Not much of a choice, is it?

AgroSpheres wants to change that, with a (non-provisional) patented biological device that farmers can spray on crops to degrade the excess pesticides into a non-toxic derivative, in just a few hours. AgroSpheres allows farmers to harvest their produce on-demand while still complying with the PHIs. Additionally, AgroSpheres prevents tainting flavor profiles (obviously a big deal in vineyards) and reduces the health risks farm workers often face when harvesting crops.

Judges wanted to know about the other options farmers had access to versus traditional pesticides which still meet compliance standards (there are some biological pesticides available on a smaller scale, but other methods which would work like AgroSpheres are probably five to seven years away); what costs the farmers would face using it (while it does integrate into the farmers' existing spray systems, there would be an additional labor cost); since they're currently talking with one distributor, what's their backup plan if that falls through (they have multiple contacts at different companies that they're pricing out to find the most efficient solution); does this work on crops other than grapes, such as cash crops like tomatoes (yes, though their initial target market is vineyards, because of the established need and their strategic position in Charlottesville, Va.; they are also now starting work with apple orchards); and how they'll deal with the regulatory challenges they'd be facing (their goal isn't to "get around" the regulations, but to deal strategically with the EPA and reduce what's needed to comply)

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Fresh U: Syracuse | Fresh U is a media platform created by Kate Beckman that "integrates data analytics to help business-to-consumer organizations and brands understand qualitative and quantitative factors, purchasing trends, and patterns of Generation Z."

Kate Beckman with Fresh U, Syracuse. | PHOTO: Tami McQueen

Gen Z, also (apparently) known as Post-Millennials, the iGeneration, Plurals or the Homeland Generation, are the new Millennials (and now I can stop trying to remember there are two Ls and two Ns in that word?). Born after 1995, they make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.

 Also, they already contribute $44 billion to the economy. And they don't possess brand loyalty the way most companies understand it. And they don't trust large corporations. Which leaves those large corporations struggling to understand how to effectively reach this demographic.

Kate wants to help. When she got to college as a freshman, she felt there was no outlet to help her talk through the transition. So she created one. She founded a national media publication (for freshmen, by freshmen) which now attracts 80,000 unique visitors per month, has partnered with Teen Vogue since 2015, and has published more than 3,500 articles via more than 300 national contributors. They are also pivoting to build a more diversified revenue model based on not just ads but also content and insights.

This means that Fresh U now has an extensive database of Gen Z insights, data and understanding. They are using this to develop a media platform that integrates data analytics to help B2C organizations understand quantitative and qualitative factors about Gen Z. Brands can use the platform to gain a better understanding of how to position their products and messaging to Gen Z. 

Judges wanted to know how granular the data was (very granular: age, gender, schools, geolocation, majors, interests and more); what the revenue of Fresh U is (not currently in the black; until three months ago the model was entirely ad-based, but they've since moved to focus on insights and monetizing partnerships to improve that); and how do they anonymize the data and ensure privacy of the users (Gen Z is built on trust, so Fresh U is very careful to keep that trust alive; they primarily operate on an opt-in framework for contributors, and utilize data on which content resonates with which groups, according to their terms of service)

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 PHOTO: Tami McQueen

PHOTO: Tami McQueen

Let's talk money

Okay ... so who were the big winners of the night? 

The judges took a minute offstage to deliberate, the audience cast text-message ballots for the audience favorite, we got a few more one-liners from the hosts (who were, in all honesty, very good, and who managed to roll out the scripted "Dad jokes" with barely a wince), and finally the results came in:

First Place ($15k): AgroSpheres

Second Place ($10k): Tech Wound Solutions

Audience Favorite ($5k): CauteryGuard


Tami and I really enjoyed the whole event, and it was beautifully done. Kudos to the Georgia Tech provost, committee, hosts and team for putting on a truly excellent show (I have seen "professional" events that paled next to this); Tami and I will most certainly be back next year, and you can bet I'll be talking up ticket sales beforehand!

So the next time you're feeling fairly accomplished in life, remind yourself: Somewhere, there are 4,000 college students holding pending patents and LLC paperwork, and some of them have just been given $30,000 to change the world. 

What are you doing today?