Wells and Kuzneski Competition Teams Make Decisions Difficult for Judges

When Michael Wells had an idea for a healthcare startup when he was a Pitt student, he didn’t know where to go for help within the university to move it forward.

For the past seven years, the successful healthcare investor and entrepreneur has helped accelerate the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at the university through the Michael G. Wells Competition to ensure that any Pitt student with such an idea has access to resources and support to take it all the way.

The 2017 winners of both the Wells Competition and the Kuzneski Innovation Cup, who received a total of $62,500 to move their innovations forward toward real-world impact, were announced to kick off the Pitt Innovation Showcase Wednesday at Alumni Hall.

The top prize of $20,000 for the Wells Competition went to Esophagel, which is developing an extracellular matrix hydrogel that can be delivered to the esophagus to control inflammation and promote tissue remodeling in patient’s suffering from Barrett’s esophagus. The team was previously a winner of the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) competition and is led by postdoctoral fellow Juan Diego Naranjo and PhD candidate Lindsey Saldin. The technology is from the lab of Dr. Stephen Badylak, Director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who holds over 60 U.S. patents.

In the Kuzneski Innovation Cup competition, the top prize of $15,000 went to PneuMobility, out of Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Lab, led by Dr. Rory Cooper. They have developed PneuChair, a wheelchair powered with compressed air that is lighter than electric-powered chairs and is waterproof. Four of the chairs were built for Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park for the disabled in Texas that includes a water park. Click here to see a news report.

The student innovator, PhD candidate Brandon Daveler, said there is significant investor interest in the PneuChair.

“Seeing the impact that this innovation has already made. Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces who couldn’t previously enjoy a water park on their own makes us even more determined to reach more people,” Daveler said.


 Second place in the Wells competition and $10,000 went to Steeltown Retractor, which has developed a retractor for abdominal surgery that requires minimal setup time and eliminates sterilization requirements. The team’s commercialization journey has included education, mentoring and financial assistance through the Coulter Translational Partners II program, the Pitt Center for Medical Innovation and the Innovation Institute’s Pitt Ventures First Gearcommercialization program and the NSF national I-Corps Team program.

The Steeltown Retractor team, led by PhD student Christopher Dumm, is testing the device in 100 surgeries in 2018. The project is overseen by Dr. Jeffrey Vipperman, Vice Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Dr. Peter Allen, Chief Resident at UPMC Mercy Hospital.

Third place and $5,000 went to Topograft, which is developing a synthetic vascular prosthetic with a longer life than existing grafts and resists clotting. Led by postdoctoral resident Dr. Luka Pocivavsek, the team includes Dr. Sachin Velankar, Associate Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and Dr. Edith Tzeng, Chief of Vascular Surgery of the VA Pittsburgh Health System.

The team has also previously participated in the Center for Medical Innovation and First Gear programs, and advanced to the national NSF I-Corps program. They were also a Kuzneski Cup runner-up last year for a non-healthcare application of their technology.

Wells said that he is pleased to see that over the past seven years, Wells Competition participants have gone on to produce nine Pitt spinouts, only four of which were the competition’s first place finisher.

Wells added that he is an annual judge at the business plan competition at the Wharton School of Business, where he is also an alumnus.

“I can say the presentation and the quality of the technologies and ideas is every bit as good at Pitt as it is at Wharton and that’s a credit to the Innovation Institute,” he said. “Today’s presentations were the best yet. It was very difficult to pick a winner.”

Laurie Kuzneski, who together with her husband Andy created the Kuzneski Innovation Cup competition last year to assist Pitt Innovators with non-healthcare ideas, echoed Wells’ sentiment that choosing the winners this year was more difficult.

“You all really inspired us today with your ideas,” she said, noting that the winner of last year’s Kuzneski Cup was continuing to pursue a startup.

The runner-up in the Kuzneski competition, receiving $7,500, was Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics (FRED). Led by Katz MBA student John Cordier as the entrepreneurial lead FRED is a statistical modeling platform that supports decision making and forecasting based on dynamic human interactions. The technology has applications in politics, insurance and other industries that requires no computer programming skills to operate.

The investigator team includes Dr. Donald Burke, Dean of the Graduate School of Public Health; Dr. Mark Roberts, Chair of Health Policy Management; and Dr. John Grefenstette, Professor of Health Policy and Management.

Third place and $3,000 went to Slideshow Presentation Access with Real-time Communication (SPARC), which has developed technology to make presentations accessible to visually impaired people.

The technology was developed by postdoctoral researcher Dr. Hyun Ka from the School of Rehabilitation Science.

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For a full set of photos from the event, click here to view a flickr gallery.