Written by Mike Yeomans
Launch of Interphase Materials Showcases Range of Service and Support Offered by Pitt Innovation Institute
Noah Snyder smiles broadly recalling the first time he was gripped by the entrepreneurial impulse that has propelled his life forward ever since.
He had registered out of curiosity for a Saturday morning workshop while participating in Pitt’s Coulter Translational Research Partners program, designed to identify and commercialize promising research projects that address unmet clinical needs.
“In that presentation it became clear to me that being an entrepreneur is what I want to do,” he said. “I didn’t have an idea yet for a product or a company, but I knew the path I was going to follow.”
Interphase Materials founders (left to right) Kasey Catt, Andrew Glowacki and Noah Snyder discuss the next phase of their strategy at their space within the Alphalab Gear business accelerator in East Liberty.
In the nearly two years since his epiphany, Snyder has taken advantage of every resource offered by the Pitt Innovation Institute, recruited fellow students to form a new company, entered and won three different Pitt business plan competitions, licensed technology developed in his lab, been accepted into the Alphalab Gear business accelerator in East Liberty’s Bakery Square development, and signed a lease for research and development space at Pitt’s U-PARC applied research center.
Oh, and he found time to successfully defended his bioengineering doctoral thesis, too.
“Noah and his team have really taken advantage of all the Innovation Institute has to offer, and have put what they have learned directly into practice to build their business,” said Marc Malandro, Innovation Institute Founding Director. “They are indicative of the surge in entrepreneurial activity at Pitt, including the launch of nearly 30 startup companies over the past two years.”
The Entrepreneurial Itch
As part of the Coulter program, Snyder registered for the Benchtop to Bedside (B2B) course taught by Babs Carryer, the Innovation Institute’s director of education and outreach.
“That class with Babs taught me the basics in transitioning from a purely scientist mindset to an entrepreneurial mindset and helped me understand how this could be a career path,” he said.
His mission now firmly implanted in his mind, Snyder approached fellow Pitt bioengineering PhD candidate Kasey Catt to attend a student Startup Pittblitz weekend at the Innovation Institute. The event is a sort of hackathon, where students with the germ of a business or product idea form teams over the course of an evening, conduct customer discovery and value proposition exercises with the assistance of an experienced mentor, and conclude the following afternoon with a five-minute business pitch to a panel of judges from the regional startup community.
By this time, Snyder and Katt had decided to form an enterprise around technology from their lab to make anti-microbial brain implants and enter it in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition – the annual startup competition open to Pitt students of all levels. Operated by the Innovation Institute, the RFBIC awards $100,000 every March to help students work towards commercializing their ideas.
Catt balked at first, concerned that the competition might interfere with his academic work. But Snyder wouldn’t take no for an answer. They barely snuck their application in under the deadline.
As they began working through the several phases of the Randall Family competition, they quickly realized that they would have to pivot away from their original idea for brain implants. The regulatory path would be far too long and the market size far too small to create a viable startup.
Enter Andrew Glowacki, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, who had been through one of the Innovation Institute’s other competitions and had done extensive work on dental implant technology. With Glowacki now on board they changed their focus to coatings for dental implants under the name Oxi-Dent. They also recruited students James Elles and Jeff Nu to the team.
“Our team really came together with great chemistry,” Catt said. “Combined we had 30 years of graduate experience.”
Competing initially with 102 other teams, which narrowed to 35 in the final round, they won the $25,000 top prize.
“When we won the Randall Family competition, we were excited because we knew that we had a year (while finishing our PhDs) to take the momentum we had built to that point to see where it could go,” Snyder said.
Pitt trustee Bob Randall, who along with his daughter, Robin, and son, Brett, have been supporting Pitt student entrepreneurs for more than a decade through the Randall Family competition, said that the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt has seen a noticeable uptick in the past few years.
“I am encouraged by the substantial increase in programs and resources dedicated to Pitt student entrepreneurs through the Innovation Institute,” Randall said. “As a university we are committed to enhancing the impact of our education and research in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. Providing our student entrepreneurs with the tools they need to successfully launch and grow new ventures is an important approach to achieving our goals, and better prepares our students to enter the real world after graduation.”
Building a Business Plan
Snyder and Catt went straight from the Randall competition into the first cohort of the Blast Furnace student business accelerator developed by Innovation Institute Executive-in-Residence Greg Coticchia. Soon they were spending as much time at the Innovation Institute in the Gardner Steel Conference Center as they were in their lab.
Blast Furnace runs on a parallel path and utilizing the same curriculum as the Innovation Institute’s Pitt Ventures Gear Program, targeted to faculty and students seeking to commercialize Pitt research. In the Gear Program, prospective new ventures work one-on-one with a mentor to hone their strategy.
Gear participants also receive $3,000 in NSF I-Corps seed funding, with the opportunity to obtain a second round of $50,000 through I-Corps, which they did.
“We worked really well with the Innovation Institute mentors. We were constantly tweaking our value proposition and discussing who are customers really are and what is important to them,” Snyder said. “It was great to have a space of our own at the Blast Furnace. We had a lot of “ping-pong” meetings where we would discuss our strategy.”
In the fall, they entered another Innovation Institute startup contest, the Wells Competition, supported by Pitt alumnus Michael Wells and focused on healthcare. Once again, they blew the judges away and came away with the top prize.
But even as they celebrated another milestone, they realized that they would have to make another strategy shift, as there would still be significant Food and Drug Administration hurdles to clear with the dental implant idea. With the help of their mentors they began thinking through other applications for their technology until they found one that would stick – or in their case, not stick.
“We learned from our mentor network to not be wedded to your initial idea, but rather to have the flexibility to find a practical application of your technology that can be marketed profitably,” Snyder said.
The application they landed on was a biochemical additive to prevent algae and zebra mussels from accumulating on piping for water treatment and manufacturing plants, as well as on boat hulls. They relaunched the company under the name Interphase Materials.
Existing products can leach toxins into the environment, or corrode metal, Snyder said. Interphase is positioning its product as a nontoxic and more effective alternative to existing solutions. They are exploring product development relationships with global coatings companies like Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries and the Dutch company Akzo Nobel
They are currently pursing Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants for government agencies, including the military. The U.S. Navy has particular issue with mussel and barnacle accumulation on its fleet, Catt said.
Launching Out of the University
When it came time to negotiate a license to take their technology out of the university, Innovation Institute staff were able to coach them through the process.
“Interphase is a great example of how the Innovation Institute can work side-by-side with Pitt innovators and provide them with the resources, education, mentoring, seed funding and networking they need to take their ideas through every step of the commercialization process and eventually out of the university through licensing and/or new venture creation,” said Evan Facher, director of enterprise development.
The goal of the Blast Furnace/Gear Program is to move Pitt entrepreneurs into one of Pittsburgh’s external business accelerators, such as Thrill Mill, Idea Foundry or Alphalab and its sister Alphalab Gear, where they can continue to grow and raise capital.
InterPhase was accepted into Alphalab Gear, funded through Innovation Works, the state’s early-stage seed investment fund for Western Pennsylvania, where they received an infusion of $50,000 in exchange for a small percentage of equity in the company, in addition to access to work space and a deep mentor network similar to that of the Innovation Institute.
Ilana Diamond, Managing Director of Alphalab Gear, said Interphase is representative of the increasing number of Pitt students seeking to launch startups.
“I continue to be impressed with the improvement in the number and quality of applicants we are getting from Pitt,” Diamond said. “They have done a lot of the groundwork on their business models and have refined their investor pitches to the point that they hit the ground running once they are accepted. Plus, they are just delightful people that you want to succeed.”
Regardless of where the Interphase journey takes him, Snyder knows one thing for sure; he loves the life of an entrepreneur.
“As soon as you get that taste you can never work for somebody else again. You can’t beat this atmosphere,” he said.