By Bill Kisliuk
A company founded by UCLA students to develop a non-invasive test for life-threatening brain injuries took the $30,000 first prize in the inaugural Student Entrepreneur Venture Competition on May 23.
Neural Analytics won the contest sponsored by the Institute for Technology Advancement at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. ITA incubates and assists businesses founded on technology developed by engineering students and faculty. Contest rules require teams to include students from UCLA Engineering and the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Judges awarded a second-place prize of $15,000 to OncoLung, which is developing a new test for lung cancer. A third-place prize of $5,000 went to vuPad, creators of a 3D application for the furniture market. The ITA contest received financial support from the Samueli and Kay Family foundations.
Leaders of Neural Analytics and five other teams of finalists made their presentations before an audience of 150 people and a panel of six judges at UCLA’s Neuroscience Research Building auditorium Thursday afternoon.
Leo Petrossian, an MBA candidate at Anderson and chief executive at Neural Analytics, explained the company’s product development arc, marketplace assessment and intellectual property rights.
Neural Analytics has developed a portable and non-invasive device to test for brain hemorrhages and Traumatic Brain Injury, which is common to soldiers wounded in combat and people involved in severe auto accidents. Today, Petrossian said, simply diagnosing intracranial pressure requires a neurosurgeon to drill into the skull. By developing new algorithms for existing tests of blood flow in the main arteries to the brain – tests now used for preventive care of stroke and in monitoring of sickle cell anemia patients – Neural Analytics is reducing the need for costly and intensive diagnostic surgery.
Petrossian and Neural Analytics co-founders Robert Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at UCLA, and Dan Hanchey, an MBA candidate at Anderson, told judges they had licensed five UCLA patents and been provisionally awarded two patents of their own related to the enterprise.
Hamilton, a Ph.D. student working with Dr. Xiao Hu, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Brain Injury Research Center who holds a joint appointment in the bioengineering department at UCLA Engineering, said the firm has done well at other venture contests, but that competing with other technology companies sharpened the group’s planning and presentation skills.
“Just having the ability to get in front of the judges and compete against teams of that caliber, from the engineering school specifically, is a fantastic process,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton encouraged other engineering students to approach Anderson to observe business pitches, seek out resources and find business partners – as he did – for launching start-up companies.
“You never know what you can do with your technology, and there are so many great technologies here at UCLA. It’s just getting the right mindset around it,” he said.
The second-place team, OncoLung, is also looking to address a medical need with less expensive and invasive technology than is available today: A simple blood test that provides accurate early diagnosis of lung cancer. OncoLung was founded by bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Bin Lu and Anderson MBA students Harry Liu and Nataraj Kalyanaraman.
“We were very happy to see that our business idea was recognized and that our efforts were rewarded,” said Lu. “By winning the prize, we are more confident that we are probably on the right track of pursuing our business.”
The third-place finisher, vuPad, developed a mobile app allowing consumers to place high-quality 3D images of furniture in the viewing panels of their tablets or computers to better picture how the furnishings might fit in their home surroundings. Firm leaders include Masaki Najada and Konstantinos Sideris, both Ph.D. students in computer science, and Alex Lu, an undergraduate studying design and media arts.
Overall, 15 teams participated in the competition. ITA Business Strategist Schaffer Grimm, who along with Technology Strategist Foad Mashayekhi played a key role in supervising the contest, said the blend of engineering and business expertise brings out the best in the teams.
“The multitude of entrants and the variety really showcased the ingenuity among the various disciplines at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science,” Grimm said. “The addition of business students to the team provided a more comprehensive understanding of the feasibility of the ideas as well as elevating the pitches beyond merely a technical presentation.”
Grimm said ITA will continue to work with all the teams that entered the competition to identify funding sources, provide guidance and help develop potential markets.
ITA Director Dwight Streit said he and the other judges were looking for innovative technologies with potentially broad applications and teams that had done vigorous business planning.
“The quality of the student ideas and presentations was simply outstanding,” said Streit, who is a professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering at UCLA.
In addition to Streit, other judges included: Robert Kim, business line director at 1-800-Dentist; Marla Sanchez, a Silicon Valley corporate turnaround expert who serves on the ITA Investment Advisory Board ; Marko Sokolich, deputy director at HRL Laboratories; and John Ying, an executive with Sony Pictures Entertainment.