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Alarms for Nurses, Robots for Swimming Pools: Lucrative Proposals Win Startup Funds in UC Davis Big Bang!

May 17, 2007

Three young scientists with a potentially lucrative idea for getting patients out of hospitals faster took home the $15,000 first prize in the annual Big Bang! business-plan competition managed by MBA students at the University of California, Davis.

The $5,000 second prize went to a pair of students who hope to put a solar-powered pool-cleaning robot in every backyard swimming pool in the country.

A $3,000 "people's choice" award went to five UC Davis students for their plan to refine and market a robotic, nanotechnology-based process that could allow scientists and drug developers to study cell-membrane proteins far more rapidly than is currently possible. Such studies can lead to advances in understanding and treating viruses, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

The awards were announced at a ceremony on campus Wednesday night. The Big Bang! competition, founded in 2001 by UC Davis Graduate School of Management students, is designed to reward innovation at UC Davis and encourage entrepreneurship in the region at large.

"Big Bang! is an exciting brew of talent, competition and money," said Nicole Woolsey Biggart, dean of the management school. "It's better than American Idol, because our winners go on to build companies that make a difference."

Saving lives, making money

The first-place team, Aid Networks, developed a software system and wireless device designed to solve a problem every hospital faces: promptly detecting problems in patients in medium-acuity wards, where a nurse may make rounds only every four hours or so. The device, worn around a patient's wrist or neck, monitors heart rate and other vital functions and emits a "smart alarm" when something goes wrong. The alarm not only alerts nursing staff to a potential problem, but also signals the appropriate response.

Danielle Sheehan, vice president of product development for the startup, predicted the system will triple the rate at which patients are admitted to and released from hospitals, since fewer patients will have their stays extended due to preventable complications. Sheehan and her partners calculate the venture will deliver more than a 20-fold return on investment in seven years.

"We want to save lives and turn $6 million into $160 million," said Sheehan, who earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at UC Davis in 2006 and is pursuing a master's in the same field at Stanford. Sheehan's teammates were Darin Buxbaum, a student in Stanford's Graduate School of Business; Tia Gao, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins; and Leo Selavo, a postdoctoral researcher in wireless sensor networks at the University of Virginia.

According to Sheehan, the Aid Networks monitoring system is already in clinical trials at hospitals in Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C. Sheehan and her partners have filed for a patent for their device.

Total of $120,000 awarded

In the past seven years, UC Davis Big Bang! has awarded $120,000 to 21 promising student-initiated projects, becoming one of the best-known business plan competitions on the West Coast. From November through May each year, dozens of students, scientists and entrepreneurs from UC Davis, other universities and the private sector invest hundreds of hours honing their business ideas for the chance to win cash and network with management professors, investors, intellectual property attorneys and business leaders. Teams must include at least one UC Davis student, alumnus or staff or faculty member.

Prize money, coaching and volunteer judges are provided by some of Northern California's largest employers, venture capital firms and law practices. This year, more than 30 companies sponsored the contest, including the international law firm DLA Piper Rudnic Gray Cary, Wells Fargo, UC Davis Health System and the McClellan Technology Incubator.

"The Big Bang! is infecting the campus and whole region with the spirit of entrepreneurism," Biggart said. "This is an infection we never want to be cured of."

This year's competition opened with a field of 31 teams that was eventually whittled down to five finalists by a panel of eight volunteer judges from the Sacramento and Bay Area business, investment and law communities.

Four of the finalists were also winners in a Little Bang contest in February sponsored by UC Davis InnovationAccess, which encourages more campus scientists to explore the market potential for their research.

Pool-cleaning robot

The second-place Big Bang! prize went to Simple Robot Inc., for the ray-shaped "Manta" autonomous swimming pool cleaner. Team members were Bill Allan, who earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at UC Davis in 2006 and now works for a Bay Area technology firm, and Alex Morris, a second-year MBA student at UC Davis. Allan and Morris say they want to build the leading robotics company in the United States, automating menial tasks so people have time for more meaningful ones.

MembreX Protein Technologies was voted the favorite project by the audience at Wednesday's ceremony. Two MBA students and three doctoral candidates at UC Davis originated this embryonic enterprise, which seeks to capitalize on technology developed in faculty laboratories. The students predict the process they are bringing to market -- for rapid screening of cell membrane proteins -- will allow scientists to complete in three hours screening studies that now take three years. Team members are MBA candidates Kevin Chartrand and Davin Hsieh; Cristina Tcheyan and Babak Sanii, both doctoral candidates in applied science; and Adrian Brozell, who is earning his doctoral in biophysics.

Other finalists

The two other Big Bang! finalists were:

  • Advanced Energy Storage Devices. Conceived by three students in the Working Professional MBA Program offered in Sacramento, this nascent company seeks to develop and market carbon nanotube ultracapacitors and electrodes as an alternative to conventional chemical batteries. The devices would recharge in seconds and outlive the machines they power, company founders say. Team members, all of whom hold full-time jobs while pursuing their MBAs, are Brett Cowley-Crawford, who works as a project manager at Aerojet in Sacramento; Dave Walton, a manager at Intel in Folsom; and Norman Lim, an electrical engineer at Intel.
  • Stroke Intervention Technologies. Paul Yu-Yang, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at UC Davis with an MBA from the management school, and Geraldine Baer, a third-year medical student at UC Davis, teamed up to design a novel stent delivery system for clogged arteries in the brain. Their product relies on a high-tech shape-memory polymer developed and patented by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The material can be fabricated into a desired shape and mechanically crimped into a smaller shape. When heated, the material expands to the pre-crimped shape.

"This is the first year that every single finalist team is a completely viable business -- each has risks and issues to address -- but venture capitalists would say they would put money into these ventures," said Kevin Coyle, one of the judges and a partner in DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, lead sponsor of the competition.

Said Cassie Hilder, an MBA student co-chair of this year's competition: "This competition has been extremely successful in initiating collaboration between the business community and research coming out of UC Davis. We hope to build on these successes to create an even larger contribution to the region."

For more information on the competition, visit the Big Bang! Web site at http://bigbang.gsm.ucdavis.edu.

About the school

Established in 1981, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management provides management education to nearly 400 students enrolled in Daytime MBA and Working Professional MBA programs on the UC Davis campus, in Sacramento, and in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also offers a technology management minor for undergraduates and business development programs in which doctoral science students develop skills to commercialize research.

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