The human spine is composed of vertically stacked vertebrae that form a protective canal for the spinal cord. Instability of the spine caused by vertebral fractures, deformities and other spinal disorders often requires surgical intervention, in which two metal screws are placed into parts of the vertebrae called pedicles and joined at adjacent vertebral levels with metal rods. However, patients with osteoporosis (and thus poor bone quality) are susceptible to screw pullout during the procedure. At the same time, osteoporotic patients stand to gain the most from the procedure.
Rather than reinvent the effective and well-established procedure of pedicle screw fixation, this E-Team is aiming to rebuild the strength of screw fixation in the pedicles by shifting the forces experienced by weak inner bone to strong outer bone. They call this method Corticoplasty™, and the device used in this approach will act as an intermediary between the bone-screw interface and provide a strong interference fit for existing screws in osteoporotic patients.
Every day as clinicians perform their morning rounds, patients are asked whether they have been using their incentive spirometer, an inexpensive bedside device that promotes deep breathing with a visual feedback mechanism. Current clinical protocol suggests performing deep breathing exercises using the incentive spirometers ten times per hour as a preventative measure to reduce postoperative pulmonary complications that include atelectasis, pneumonia, and bronchitis. As a testimony to their efficacy, incentive spirometers are provided to every single patient who undergoes general anesthesia. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell if a patient has actually been using the spirometer, forcing clinicians to rely on patient memory, which is neither objective nor accurate in the post-operative period.
This E-Team is designing an electronic, disposable incentive spirometer that will quantify when a patient uses it. The device is designed to allow hospital staff to monitor patient usage and lung capacity performance—features not possible with current embodiments. Ultimately, the team hopes to expand into the full spirometry market to help diagnose non-hospitalized patients for conditions such as pneumonia.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009 - $17,793
Cooking fuels are problematic in Haiti: while almost half of the population uses wood or agricultural residues as their primary cooking fuel, breathing the smoke from the fires leads to persistent respiratory lung infections, mostly in women and children. Most of the remainder of the population uses cleaner-burning wood charcoal, which can be prohibitively expensive (often 25% of a family’s income). Both options contribute to deforestation in a country that is already 98% deforested.
This E-Team, calling itself Fuel from the Fields, has developed a method over the last seven years of producing cleaner-burning, inexpensive charcoal made from agricultural waste. Supported by a number of grants from different organizations, the team has validated the viability of the technology and established three training centers and sixty workshops in Haiti producing charcoal for their own use and to sell. The team is now looking to establish centers for training, research, and business throughout Haiti (and eventually worldwide) that will teach farmers the process of making the charcoal, how to create micro-enterprises around the technology, how to innovate/improve on it, and document the technology’s influence.
Charcoal offers Haiti’s small farmers a way to create successful micro-businesses that produce alternative charcoal, generating new income and providing local employment opportunities while reducing deforestation and improving air pollution associated with cooking.
University of California - Berkeley, 2009 - $20,000
Chlorination is a cheap and safe method to disinfect water that actively continues to disinfect for several days, unlike other methods that cannot guard against biological recontamination. Programs in the developing world using chlorination at the household level have seen water-borne illness decrease by 22-84%, but have faced logistical issues in reaching every home with a regular supply of chlorine and dosing errors that have led to under-chlorinated or over-chlorinated water. In Kenya, simple community chlorine dosers increased chlorine usage from 8-61%; however these dosers were limited in their ability to adapt to different volumes of water.
LoChlorine has developed two products, the LoChlorine Producer and LoChlorine Doser, both of which aim to safeguard family health by improving access to and the performance of chlorination. The LoChlorine Producer is a method that uses human power to produce chlorine locally that yields a reliable concentration of chlorine for pennies. The LoChlorine Doser is unique in its ability to automatically and appropriately dose arbitrary volumes of water. The design has no moving parts, uses no electricity, and could be mass-manufactured for less than ten dollars.
The team plans to implement the project initially in West Bengal, India, in partnership with the Aqua Welfare Society.
As the December deadline for Advanced E-Team and Course & Program grants rapidly approaches, we've interviewed Grants Manager Jennifer Keller Jackson on the common mistakes made when submitting grant proposals. Each of these podcasts is just a couple minutes. Worth a listen if you plan to submit a proposal!
Two E-Teams talk about how they got venture capital funding—and the impact it made
One of the primary reasons the NCIIA is starting Venture Well is to address what you could call the “Big Gap”: the space between a group of college students working on an idea and a full-fledged venture worthy of investment. There’s a long way to go between the two, and it takes lots of hard work to get from one to the other. This summer we talked with two teams that succeeded in going from student E-Team to start-up to venture-funded company and discussed their journey through the world of early stage funding and venture capital.
How do you set yourself up to even be considered for venture capital funding? What are some of the pros and cons of taking equity financing? Their answers provide some good advice for prospective E-Teams.
The interviewees are both in the medical device field. Ashish Mitra was part of the Novel Aortic Endograft E-Team from Stanford, developers of a stent graft with an adhesive delivery platform. They went on to form Endoluminal Sciences and received $2 million in venture funding.
Evan Edwards, recipient of an E-Team grant in 2000, has been working toward commercializing his invention—a credit-card-sized epinephrine injector for people with severe allergies, dubbed the “EpiCard”—for the past eight years. His company, Intelliject, has received $13 million in venture funding and EpiCard is in late stages of development. Here are some highlights from the discussion.
How did you position yourselves for venture capital funding?
Edwards: The first step in moving toward VC funding is interacting with people. Talk with local businesses, join a venture group, join an on-campus entrepreneurship club. By going to their meetings and attending their seminars you’ll gain an understanding of how to write a business plan, or how to value your company, or how to do the financials; whatever you need. You’ll make your strengths even stronger and shore up your weaknesses. That will start you down the right path. Then you have to just get out there and see what they say. We made the rounds and presented the Intelliject business plan, and the feedback we received from the angels and VCs was very specific and very helpful. We re-worked the venture, then targeted VC firms that we thought would be excellent partners and obtained warm introductions.
Mitra: The first thing we concentrated on was the idea. Venture capitalists want big ideas with big potential returns, so we made sure we had a practicable, useful idea that addressed a huge unmet need. We made sure the need was validated by experts—physicians, engineers and VCs—and presented positive preliminary test data proving our concept.
What are some of the pros and cons of taking equity financing?
Edwards: On the plus side, you get smart money to help build the company, and you’re backed up by deep pockets if you need subsequent investment. The negative: big decisions need to be approved by the VC.
Mitra: For a university off-shoot like ours, the pros of equity financing far outweighed the cons. In fact, equity financing was really the only option given the R&D nature of the project and that none of the inventors/founders were in a position to support debt financing. VC funding not only enabled us to work under the mentorship of a highly experienced investor team but also helped us get to the point where we are moving to market faster. The obvious disadvantage with equity financing is the rate at which the shares of the founders are diluted over a period of time.
What would you recommend emerging E-Teams do to position themselves for major funding?
Edwards: The first thing is to get a great idea, put together a great team, and work hard on the idea and on interacting with people. Once you’re ready for the VCs, be targeted in your approach and evaluate VC firms carefully. Interview them as much as they interview you! Take a careful look at their domain expertise, their network, and their strategic thinking. Only do business with the firms that are right for you.
Mitra: My primary recommendation would be to involve a godfather—a star in the relevant area—right from the start. This will load the magazine of your pitching gun with words that tend to hit the bullseye of any investor pitch. The brighter the star, the more visible he or she should be on the team. One other piece of advice: investors pay much more attention to the team that will execute the project as compared to the team that invented it. The objective should not only be to convince them that the idea will work but also that the team can make it work.
Both Mitra and Edwards agree that the the real work begins only after you receive major funding. Mitra needed to execute a multitude of tasks, from finding office space to hiring new employees, and Edwards used the money to finalize the product and move toward manufacturing. But both readily attest that the time and effort it takes to get VC funding is well worth it. The satisfactions, both mental and financial, can be substantial. And they’re both happy to get the chance to make a real difference in the world.
A collection of featured articles from NCIIA publications and newsletters.
Waiting a while for the payoff: Insitutec
Imagine trying to bootstrap a company that makes industrial positioning and measuring systems with nanoscale resolution. Sound tough? It’s exactly what Shane and Bethany Woody, co-founders of Charlotte-based InsituTec, Inc., have been doing since incorporating in 2001... read more
The right team at the right time: Keen Mobility
Often, the best teams don’t form as a result of careful planning: good teams synthesize when the right people work on the right project at the right time. Such is the story of Vail Horton and the Keen Mobility E-Team... read more
Credit, Debit, or Cell Phone?
Imagine that you’re shopping at the supermarket. As you reach the end of the checkout line, the cashier offers you the familiar menu of choices with a new twist: “Credit, debit, or cell phone?”
Ajay Bam, founder of Boston-based mobile commerce processor Vayusa, Inc., and twice a recipient of NCIIA funding, wants to make this transaction a reality... read more
Different problems, same solution
It’s hard to go wrong when giving people access to new information: people crave it, markets need it, and the benefits often extend far beyond the initial application. Case in point: two Sustainable Vision grantees recently took a look at widely divergent problems and arrived at the same basic solution: these people need more information... read more
E-Team grantees focusing on new ways to meet residential energy needs
Even a brief look at the statistics regarding home energy consumption in the US can be staggering: American households consume 355 billion kwh per year for heating and cooling alone; US homes produce 21 percent of the country’s total global warming pollution; by 2020, the US residential sector will account for 11.4 quadrillion BTUs of end-use energy annually…In the long run, satisfying our energy needs while decreasing CO² emissions will require a coordinated effort on a number of fronts, including developing renewable energies and increasing energy efficiency.
Over the years, a number of NCIIA E-Teams have looked to do just that... read more
Two E-Teams talk about how they got venture capital funding—and the impact it made
One of the primary reasons the NCIIA is starting Venture Well is to address what you could call the “Big Gap”: the space between a group of college students working on an idea and a full-fledged venture worthy of investment. There’s a long way to go between the two, and it takes lots of hard work to get from one to the other. This summer we talked with two teams that succeeded in going from student E-Team to start-up to venture-funded company and discussed their journey through the world of early stage funding and venture capital... read more
Student-run, their way: EcoTech Marine
Amid all the talk these days about elevator pitches and equity, burn rate and liquidation, preferred stock and venture fairs, we present to you one simple and reassuring fact: you don’t have to get fancy angel or VC funding to succeed. In fact, in certain situations you might be better off without it. Such is the story of EcoTech Marine, a team of students with enough entrepreneurial spirit and drive to take a product all the way to market themselves, with a minimum of private investment... read more
Marketing to the poor: International Development Enterprises (IDE)
Paul Polak didn’t have to do any of this. At age forty-seven, Polak was a successful Colorado psychiatrist with a wife, three daughters and $3 million in real estate. But in his extensive world travels Polak witnessed more and more the debilitating effects of extreme poverty on the world’s rural poor—who often make less than one dollar a day—and became curious about ways to help... read more
A failure success story: John Fabel
The story of John Fabel teaches us that when it comes to entrepreneurial endeavors, failure isn’t always a bad thing: new opportunities arise, lessons are learned, people move forward. In this profile we take you through John’s story, from invention to incorporation to bankruptcy to eventual success, and find out what he learned along the way... read more
Open to learn: Evan Edwards and EpiCard
Evan Edwards knows a thing or two about business plans. The recipient of an NCIIA Advanced E-Team grant in 2000, Edwards has been working toward commercializing his invention—a credit-card-sized epinephrine injector for people with severe allergies, dubbed the “EpiCard”—for the past few years. We spoke with Edwards about what goes into a business plan, the lessons he’s learned about writing them, and his advice for nascent inventors looking to build a company around a new technology... read more
Insulating your home with...mushrooms?
Open up the walls of just about any new home and you’ll find the same thing: two sheets of plywood sandwiching an insulating foam core. Known as Structural Insulating Panels, or SIPS, the approach is gaining popularity in the building industry because it’s cheap and effective. Unfortunately the foam insulation in SIPS is also environmentally damaging, requiring petroleum to produce, and it isn’t biodegradable, eventually ending up in landfills... read more
Whole Tree taking a wholly different approach
A standard approach to dealing with problems in the developing world is to develop a specific solution to a specific problem: if people lack access to potable water, you develop a water filter for them to buy and use. Need lighting? Manufacture and sell solar lamps. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, Whole Tree, Inc., a former Baylor University E-Team and the first recipient of Venture Well investment funding (see sidebar on page 4), is using a different tactic: alleviating poverty by providing access to huge markets in the US and abroad... read more
Our fall newsletter is out. Clean energy in homes, new opportunities for faculty and students, 2010 Annual Conference and grantees from the May 2009 E-Team and Course and Program grants round. Read the newsletter here.
The technology: The SensorRope snakes down inside earthern structures and monitors the conditions of the structure, transmitting an early failure warning signal should the structural conditions be deemed dangerous. Condition Engineering is also developing a fiber optic sensing system for monitoring the temperature and structural integrity of high-temperature materials, such as a space vehicle's thermal protection shield.