NCIIA funds college and university entrepreneurs and innovators who are creating new technologies and new campus programs to foster a nationwide culture of innovation. NCIIA provides $1.5 million in grants annually, with significant support from The Lemelson Foundation, accounting for the largest total grant funding of its kind for collegiate innovation in the U.S.
NCIIA’s E-Team (Entrepreneurial Team) program supports the next generation of innovators striving to meet critical societal and environmental needs in the U.S. or underserved populations in developing countries worldwide.
NCIIA provides grants to faculty at colleges and universities nationwide to support their efforts to ignite a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship among science and engineering students.
Impact of NCIIA funding
Since NCIIA’s founding 17 years ago, more than 180 companies have launched as a result of early stage support from NCIIA grants and training.
NCIIA’s grant opportunities are the mechanisms through which we identify and support university inventors who are addressing pressing social problems with innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. To date, over 180 companies have launched that were supported in their early stages with NCIIA grants and training.
The E-Team Program provides early-stage support and funding of up to $75,000 for collegiate entrepreneurs working on market-based technology inventions.
Read more about NCIIA’s E-Team Program here. See previously funded E-Team Program grantees here.
Course and Program
Course and Program grants strengthen existing curricular programs or build new courses and programs in invention, innovation, and technology entrepreneurship.
Read more about our Course and Program grants program here. See previously funded Course and Program grantees here.
Sustainable Vision grants fund educational programs in which technologies are created and commercialized to benefit people living in poverty.
Read more about our Sustainable Vision grants program here. See previously funded Sustainable Vision grantees here.
Darash Desai, graduate student in Biomedical Engineering
Andrea Fernandes, graduate student in Public Health
Principal investigator: Dr. Muhammad Zaman, Associate Professor, Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine
School: Boston University
The innovation: A portable detector for screening counterfeit and substandard medicines for use in developing countries.
The problem: The top 10 causes of death in developing regions are responsible for 5.25 million deaths each year. Eight of every 10 of those deaths are treatable or preventable with the effective use of quality medication. Unfortunately, 50 percent of medicines distributed in developing countries are either counterfeit or significantly sub-standard in quality. These counterfeit drugs typically contain none of the active ingredient required for that specific drug, such as acetaminophen in Tylenol. The production and distribution of these counterfeit medicines is a deadly and complicated trend. Furthermore, pharmacies are less regulated in developing countries, with almost all drugs accessible for purchase over the counter.
The solution: PharmaCheck is developing a mobile, user-friendly medical screening tool to quickly and easily check the quality of drugs in developing countries. To test a medication, the user simply places a pill into a small testing box, which then instantly reports the amount of the active ingredient found in that pill. This tool will allow regulatory authorities, NGOs, hospitals and pharmacies, as well as other individuals or organizations working in the healthcare field, to dramatically improve the delivery of quality drugs to patients in need and the overall health of these developing regions.
The future: PharmaCheck is currently finalizing its first physical prototype. Once completed, the team plans to work with their contacts at U.S. Pharmacopeia -- a scientific organization that sets standards for the identity, strength, quality and purity of ingredients in medicines and foods worldwide -- to take the prototype to Ghana for hands-on testing in the field. Following extensive physical testing of the prototype, PharmaCheck will make any necessary changes and begin examining the medicine supply chain in developing regions to zero in on the points at which quality medicine is either interfered with, and/or when and where counterfeit products are introduced into the supply chain. The end goal is for an array of users in the healthcare field to be able to effectively and easily control the quality of medicine delivered to patients.
Tips for student innovators: According to Darash, “Our number one tip to upcoming innovators is to understand the problem at hand. Particularly in the area of global health and development, the parameters of your innovation will depend upon very specific needs. Once you understand your problem, focus and tackle it by giving it 100 percent of your effort, instead of trying to take on multiple problems with half your effort.”
Andrea adds, “In the early stages, it’s really useful to go through thought experiments to fully understand your problem and develop the appropriate solution. For example, think about questions like: Who would be the user? Why? What is the cost, both to the manufacturer and the user? Where and how would the product be supplied? These and other questions are important to turn your big-picture business strategy into a sustainable business venture.”
Brett Geiger, Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering
Jeff Kessler, undergraduate student in the Fischer College of Business; investment banking intern at Goldman, Sachs & Co.
Kinshuk Mitra, undergraduate student in Biomedical Engineering
Principal investigator: Dr. Michael Tweedle Professor & Stephanie Spielman Chair in Cancer Imaging The Ohio State University
The innovation: A new blood filtration tool that quickly and cost-effectively separates cancer cells from healthy cells to detect and monitor cancer at an early stage.
The problem: The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, approximately 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, nearly two-thirds of which will result in death. This cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen, at which point it is difficult to treat and often fatal. Finding a better way to detect ovarian cancer at an earlier stage when it is treatable would save thousands of lives every year.
The solution: The OncoFilter team is developing a versatile, cost-effective filtration tool for testing blood samples to detect cancers at an earlier stage than is possible with products currently on the market. The innovation takes a patient’s blood sample and filters it through a funnel-like device that sifts the blood and detects multiple cell types, DNA and proteins simultaneously, allowing for a much wider screening capability for multiple diseases and types of cancers. The filters are low-cost and easy to use for physicians and nurses in virtually any medical laboratory nationwide, providing quicker test results—typically in less than one week. OncoFilter sees the greatest need for this product with ovarian cancer, as it is more complex to detect and monitor than most other cancers. It will be a true lifesaver in the fight against cancer.
The future: The team will continue to develop prototypes to optimize the design and functionality of the filter technology. Concurrently, OncoFilter is working to build relationships and seek advice from experts in the field to help perfect both the device and their commercialization strategy. After prototyping, the team will submit the product to clinical trials and hopes to eventually sell the filter to a large medical device corporation for mass production and distribution.
The OncoFilter team’s dream is for the device to be used in a mainstream setting to diagnose and monitor for ovarian cancer. Ideally, the team would like to eventually see medical professionals recommend annual screenings using this technology as a critical component in early detection and prevention efforts designed to increase ovarian cancer survival rates, in much the same way as yearly mammograms have been utilized in the fight against breast cancer.
Tip for student innovators: Kinshuk says, “Be resilient. Innovating and being entrepreneurial takes a toll on you and your team. It is important to accept that we all have wins and losses along the way, so being able to bounce back and learn from a bump in the road is absolutely critical.”
The team: Rural Trade Communications – Awarded $16,600
The team members:
David Espinoza, PhD candidate, RTC technical lead
Jared Leventhal, undergraduate student in Civil Engineering and Business Administration; RTC business model development lead
Alan Mickelson, associate professor of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering; RTC project manager
Christie Ritter, undergraduate student in Environmental Engineering; RTC social analysis lead
Principal Investigator: Dr. Alan Mickelson
School: University of Colorado, Boulder
The innovation: A for-profit, subscription-based cell phone service that links together farmers, transporters and merchants in the Peruvian rain forest.
The problem: Farmers along the Napo River in the Peruvian rain forest are often underpaid for their crops and are at a severe economic disadvantage that locks them into poverty.
This is due to their isolation: cell phone signals can’t penetrate the thick forest canopy, making expensive and spotty satellite phones the only choice. Additionally, there are no roads, making slow, infrequent river transport the only means of moving goods from one place to another. Without cell phones or the ability to travel, farmers are unaware of current market prices and often sell their crops at the village riverbank for meager returns on investment.
The solution: Rural Trade Communications (RTC) is taking advantage of existing infrastructure in the region in order to provide a solution. In the early 2000’s, the United Nations funded the construction of 17 communication towers along the Napo—towers tall enough to rise above the forest canopy and make cell phone communication possible. The team installed a WiFi Long Distance network on the towers, making cell phone usage a reality.
The team is now looking to make commerce in the area more efficient with a cell phone-based subscription service. For $5 a month, users of the service—farmers, merchants down-river in the major market town of Iquitos, buyers that travel the river and local entrepreneurs—would belong to the RTC network. Using their cell phones, members of the network would, for the first time, be able to arrange transactions between themselves by phone. A farmer could spread the word that he has bananas for sale, a restaurant owner in Iquitos could bid on them and a facilitator could arrange a fair market price between them. A traveling buyer in the network would then pick up the bananas and bring them directly to Iquitos. RTC will take a small cut of the transaction in order to sustain the business and the facilitator of the transaction will also take a small fee.
The future: The RTC team is planning pilot tests of the network in three Napo communities while simultaneously monitoring two control communities at the same time. They will gather as much data as possible on how the operation works, then make a decision on whether or not to incorporate.
In the long term, the team would like to see its model scaled throughout Latin America and as far as Africa—wherever there’s the cell phone capacity.
Tips for student innovators: Alan Mickelson advises “Perseverance. These things are not going to work out the first time. You aren't going to get funded the first time. You just have to stay at it. You have to want to do it.”
Jared Leventhal recommends student innovators “Have fun and be creative.”
David Espinoza tells innovators that “You have to really believe in your project. If you have passion for it, the time and effort and resources invested will feel worthwhile.”
A radiofrequency ablation probe designed for the unique challenges of breast cancer.
The team: Innoblative Designs – Awarded $19,369
The team members:
Oyinlolu “Lolu” Adeyanju, Ph.D., medical student in the N.I.H. Medical Scientist Training Program at the Feinberg School of Medicine
Daniel McCarthy, M.D., M.B.A.,M.E.M., and a senior general surgery resident at Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Adam Piotrowski, CD2 Medical Device Innovation fellow at The Center for Device Development; founder of Create Big Ideas
Brian Robillard, master’s degree student in Biomedical Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering; research assistant at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center
Jason Sandler, JD/MBA student at the Northwestern School of Law and the Kellogg School of Management
Tyler Wanke, MMM candidate at the Kellogg School of Management and the McCormick School of Engineering; MD candidate at the Feinberg School of Medicine
Principal investigator: Dr. David Mahvi Professor and Chief of Gastrointestinal and Oncologic Surgery
School: Northwestern University
The innovation: An expandable, handheld radiofrequency ablation (RFA) probe that generates heat from electricity to eliminate all cancerous cells remaining after breast cancer surgery. The innovation takes current tissue ablation treatments used in other areas of medicine and redesigns it to be more reliable and user-friendly to address the unique challenges of breast surgery. The result is a breast cancer treatment that is faster, safer, more convenient and less expensive than current therapies.
The problem: In the U.S., the average woman has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Thanks to medical advances, physicians are able to detect the disease in its early stages. However, there has been limited technological progress and innovation in the treatment of breast cancer over the last 20 to 30 years.
Breast cancer is typically treated by a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor, followed by a long series of radiation treatments to destroy any cancer cells remaining in the patient’s breast after surgery. While this approach is generally seen as more favorable than removing the breast altogether with a mastectomy, there are many complications and challenges associated with radiation therapy, including long duration of treatment, short- and long-term side effects, geographic inconvenience and high cost. Studies show as many as 30 percent of women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer do not complete the treatment schedule as a result of one or more of these factors, and therefore are more susceptible to cancer recurrence.
The solution: Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) has been successfully used to treat certain cancers and other medical conditions in which abnormal cells must be destroyed. It is faster due to its localized function and shortened treatment time, safer due to fewer side effects, more convenient due to one-time use and significantly less expensive than traditional radiation therapy. However, because the RFA probes currently on the market are designed to treat solid organ disease, they do not function properly in the post-lumpectomy breast cavity.
Innoblative Designs is developing a new device to meet the unique needs of RFA treatment for breast cancer. The expandable, handheld probe would be utilized in the operating room immediately following the lumpectomy, delivering RFA directly to the breast cavity to quickly kill remaining cancerous tissue. This practice would dramatically reduce the patient’s chance of cancer recurrence and need for radiation therapy. The RFA probe treatment for breast cancer would eliminate the need for radiation therapy in most, if not all, cases.
The future: Innoblative Designs is currently in the process of optimizing its prototype through computer-aided design and analysis—testing various iterations for functional improvements. Additionally, Innoblative Designs is creating physical prototypes for hands-on testing. The long-term goal is to get the device through preclinical and clinical trials and ultimately into operating rooms, helping women and their families worldwide fight breast cancer in a way that is faster, safer, more convenient and less expensive.
Tips for student innovators: Dr. Daniel McCarthy suggests that students “Build a team of diverse disciplines. What’s unique about Innoblative Designs is that each team member brings something different and valuable to our project. Coming from rich backgrounds in engineering, medicine, business, entrepreneurship and technology, our team has complementary skill sets that all lend themselves toward advancing the project in different and compelling ways. Another important tip—leap at as many networking opportunities as possible. You never know which connection will lead to your next breakthrough in development.”
An implantable, synthetic, biodegradable scaffold designed to help diabetic ulcer patients heal faster.
The team: PoraDerm – Awarded $15,014
The team members:
Drew Harmata, graduate student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Jon Page, graduate student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Principal investigator: Dr. Scott Guelcher, Assistant Professor
School: Vanderbilt University
The innovation: A synthetic, biodegradable foam structure designed to heal chronic foot ulcers caused by diabetes.
The problem: The prevalence of diabetes continues to rise in the United Sates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25.8 million children and adults in the United States (8.3 percent of the population) suffer from diabetes and its complications.
Diabetes reduces blood flow to certain areas of the body, especially the feet, making it harder for the body to heal wounds. Additionally, diabetes can cause nerve damage that prevents a patient from feeling pain in his/her feet, increasing the likelihood that an injury will go unnoticed and untreated until it becomes infected. These factors contribute to the development of diabetic foot ulcers – open wounds that, if not properly treated, can become infected and lead to amputation of the lower leg.
Diabetic foot ulcers are responsible for more hospitalizations than any other diabetes complication. More than two million Americans suffer from chronic ulcers, requiring treatment costs of approximately $8 billion per year.
The solution: PoraDerm is a synthetic, biodegradable foam structure designed to be implanted into the ulcer, significantly aiding the healing process. The structure fills the ulcer, covering the wound and acting as a scaffold that supports the surrounding tissue. The scaffold is made out of rigid polyurethane foam that can by shaved down and customized to fit a particular wound. The patient’s cells attach to the scaffold, allowing them to make direct contact across the full surface of the ulcer to repair the skin tissue. As the ulcer heals, the scaffold dissolves.
Products currently used to treat diabetic foot ulcers are often tissue paper-thin and designed to treat a variety of wound types on the human body. PoraDerm improves upon that design. Its malleable foam is more resilient and customizable than other products, and is specifically designed to accommodate the thicker skin on the bottom of a patient’s foot.
The future: The PoraDerm team is working to secure funding to support animal and clinical trials that will compare the device’s performance against that of existing products. Before PoraDerm can be used in clinical trials, the device must undergo a rigorous FDA approval process.
Ultimately, the team would like to see PoraDerm used widely in a clinical setting. With an initial potential target market of 3.5 million patients, this represents a $1.5 billion market opportunity. While they recognize that achieving widespread use of the product will be a long process, Drew and Jon view each step along the way as a small success and learning opportunity.
Tips for student innovators: Jon Page encourages student innovators to “Seek out organizations like NCIIA that provide education and guidance on entrepreneurship, especially organizations affiliated with your university. The earlier you can seek out these programs the better.”
The team: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC – Awarded $19,992
The team members:
Tyler Anderson, master’s degree student in Soil Science
Carolyn Barker, graduated in May 2013 with bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences
Christy Davidson, research specialist in the Department of Soil Science
Menachem Tabanpour, president and co-founder, Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC
Principal investigator: Dr. Phillip Barak, co-founder and science director, Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC; professor in the Department of Soil Science
School: University of Wisconsin – Madison
The innovation: A system that recovers damaging phosphorous from wastewater at sewage treatment plants in a form that can be used as fertilizer.
The problem: The Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in Madison, Wisconsin treats approximately 50 million gallons of water per day by removing harmful nutrients, solids and bacteria. One of the substances present in the wastewater is soluble phosphorous, which builds up over time and eventually clogs the facility’s machinery—a problem common to many wastewater treatment plants.
An essential ingredient in fertilizers, phosphorus is used to ensure optimal crop yields in large-scale agriculture. As the world's population increases, so, too, does the demand for phosphorous, which is produced by mining and treating phosphate rock. Phosphate rock is a finite resource, and there are growing concerns that the Earth's supply will one day be exhausted, which could have a devastating impact on worldwide food production. To avoid depleting valuable phosphorous reserves, there is a need to find ways to recover phosphorous from other sources when possible.
The solution: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling (NRU) is developing a process that extracts phosphorous from the treatment plant’s wastewater and “upcycles” it to a high-grade form that can be sold for use in fertilizer. The key to collecting phosphorous from the wastewater is to render it insoluble. NRU accomplishes this by adding the compound calcium hydroxide to wastewater, which raises the water’s pH, creating calcium phosphate minerals that can then be collected.
The future: NRU’s claims for a patent have been approved, and the team is now seeking grants to address the engineering problems inherent in applying small-scale solutions developed in a laboratory to complex, industrial-scale systems. The team is confident that its method for recovering phosphorous involves lower input costs and recovers 40% to 50% more phosphorous as that of competing technologies.
NRU will also need to demonstrate that the calcium phosphate it collects is a suitable fertilizer source. The team must determine what is needed to make the compound chemically similar to fertilizers already on the market and ensure that the product is free of pathogens and other contaminants present in wastewater.
If NRU’s technology can be perfected and scaled, the team will have created a new service in demand by wastewater treatment plants and a new method for producing fertilizer without depleting the Earth’s phosphate ore reserves.
Tips for student innovators: Menachem Tabanpour advises student innovators to “Tinker and fail early…as many times as possible.”
Noah Gostout, graduated in January 2013 with master’s degree in Physics Entrepreneurship
Principal investigator: Dr. Edward Caner, STEP Executive Director & Lecturer
School: Case Western Reserve University
The innovation: A durable plastic bag filled with unique fluid that can be used to temporarily fill potholes until permanent repairs can be made.
The problem: On roads across the nation, potholes often appear faster than maintenance crews can repair them. Cold-weather repair is particularly problematic. Potholes can only be properly repaired when the weather is sunny and dry, but in many areas of the country, these conditions are a rarity during the winter months.
The standard practice is to quickly “cold patch” potholes with asphalt that provides a temporary fix until full repairs can be made. This method requires traffic to be diverted while crews pour and roll the asphalt. The asphalt used to cold patch potholes is not particularly resilient and deteriorates under constant pressure from vehicle traffic.
Potholes can cause significant damage to vehicles and increase the likelihood of accidents. According to the American Automobile Association, potholes are responsible for approximately $5 billion in car repair costs each year.
The solution: Hole Patch’s technology consists of a durable plastic bag filled with a “non-Newtonian fluid” – a fluid that hardens when a force is applied to it. When the bag is placed inside of a pothole, the fluid flows outward to fill it. The moment a car drives over the bag, it hardens, preventing wheels from sinking into the hole. For larger potholes, multiple bags can be used.
Because Hole Patch works by simply placing a bag inside of a pothole, streets do not need to be closed to accommodate work crews. Whereas cold patch asphalt can begin to deteriorate in as little as 24 hours, a Hole Patch bag can last up to several weeks on roads with regular traffic, and can be reused to fill multiple potholes over its lifespan.
The future: Hole Patch’s technology is unlike any other product on the market, so the team’s first priority is to secure their intellectual property. They have filed for a U.S. non-provisional patent, and have filed a Patent Cooperation Treaty application to obtain international recognition of the patent.
Initial testing of Hole Patch in cooperation with the City of East Cleveland has shown consistently positive results, but the product still needs to be tested under a wider variety of road, traffic and weather conditions. The results of these tests may necessitate the development of additional prototype fluids.
In order to manufacture the product at scale, the team will need to refine its design to allow for efficient manufacturing. In the long term, the team hopes to build Hole Patch into a successful business, supplying government transportation departments with the technology to increase vehicle safety and reduce operational costs.
Tips for student innovators: Noah and Nicholas have found that people are an innovator’s most valuable asset. Diversity of skills and backgrounds among collaborating students and faculty members is essential for achieving success in innovation and entrepreneurship. Seeking out an advisor with specific experience in your particular industry is also vital.
The team: Disease Diagnostic Group – Awarded $20,000
The team members:
John Lewandowski, CEO/Founder, graduate student in Engineering and Management
Principal investigator: Dr. Brian Grimberg, CMO/President, professor in the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease
School: Case Western Reserve University
The innovation: A handheld malaria diagnosis device that provides accurate results in one minute with one drop of blood from a fingertip.
The problem: Malaria has had, and continues to have, a large impact on the developing world. There were a 250 million documented cases in 2010 (with the actual number of cases likely much higher) that led to one million deaths, 90 percent of which were children. According to the World Health Organization, in particularly hard-hit countries, malaria is responsible for 30 to 50 percent of hospital admissions, up to 50 percent of outpatient visits, and up to 40 percent of public health spending.
Part of the problem is diagnosing the disease. Malaria is usually confirmed by the microscopic examination of a blood sample or by a rapid diagnostic test (RDT), a dipstick embedded with reagents that changes color when exposed to a drop of blood. Each approach has its drawbacks: many settings are not equipped to perform microscopic testing, and even when they are, accuracy is a problem as 50 percent of cases are misdiagnosed. RDTs are more accurate but expensive, and can be damaged by tropical conditions; they also vary widely in sensitivity and specificity and are unable to detect low levels of malaria parasites.
Without being able to detect low levels of parasites, half of all infections worldwide go undiagnosed. People with low-grade infections unwittingly bring the disease back into their village. As a result, the disease keeps circulating in the community and malaria persists despite being treatable and curable.
The solution: Disease Diagnostic Group (DDG) is developing the Rapid Assessment of Malaria device, or RAM, a handheld tool that can detect early-stage infections. RAM is a 3x5 inch beige cube that contains inexpensive magnets, optical wiring and digital circuitry. It works by taking advantage of the unique chemical composition of malaria parasites, which contain iron as a result of eating red blood cells. RAM dilutes a drop of blood with water, shines a focused laser light through the sample and the iron, lined up by the magnets, blocks some of the beam. How much the beam is blocked depends on the amount of iron, which in turn predicts how many parasites are present.
Lab tests run by the team determined its device was right 97 percent of the time, while RDTs are about 85 percent accurate, and microscopes 50 percent.
RAM’s high level of accuracy could have big implications. DDG Founder John Lewandowski, a CWRU graduate student with a keen interest in fighting malaria, said, “We expect that our device would be far superior to existing technologies in an ‘elimination setting’—meaning the complete eradication of malaria from a certain area.”
The future: DDG is currently in the process of finalizing its RAM prototype, with the goal of deploying 25 of them for field tests in Fall 2013. CWRU malarial researcher and inventor of the technology Brian Grimberg said, “Actually going out into the field is the next big stepping stone for us. What funders such as the World Health Organization really want to see is how our device does in the field compared to the other methods. “
DDG is aggressively pursuing fundraising, looking for $300,000 in non-equity grants or private investment in order to scale up operations and enter the market.
Tips for student innovators: Lewandowski: “Make sure you balance the social impact of your technology with financial sustainability. You have to look at both the technology and the business model. A lot of people focus on one or the other, and end up with a huge problem.”
Grimberg: “Seek help! There are a lot of opportunities for getting help from people around your campus and in your community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Things only happen when you interact with people and start to learn from them.”