ECE majors win awards at Cozad competition

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By Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS
June 11, 2014

  • "Cozad gives student entrepreneurs the chance to validate their ideas, form multidisciplinary teams, gain valuable feedback and advice from sponsors and mentors, and gives them the opportunity to compete alongside their peers for funding and prizes to help them reach the next stage," Technology Entrepreneur Center marketing coordinator Danyelle Michelini said.
  • The Cozad New Venture Competition features teams of student entrepreneurs developing products with the assistance of competition-supplied mentors. More than $180,000 dollars is available for funding for the finalist teams. The Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois hosts the competition.
  • ECE graduate students on winning teams were Xinhao Wang, Tei-Wei Chang, and Jing Jiang of MoboSens, Umer Hassan of ElectroCyt, Thomas O'Brien of OCS Goaltending, and recent graduate Bobby Reddy, Jr. of ElectroCyt. The winning ECE undergraduate students were Joshua Schultheiss and Soham Waychal of Flaming Cactus, Aaron Mann of Resdin Technologies Inc., Christopher Moy of MyHome, and Devasia Manuel of Food Origins.

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy face, among a number of other risks, the danger of radiation killing too many vital blood cells. To make sure their blood-cell levels are stable, patients must take blood count tests at hospitals or clinics. However, a device being developed by a startup called ElectroCyt could soon eliminate hospital visits from the testing process, allowing patients to test themselves at home and receive results almost instantly.

ElectroCyt is one of several teams that competed for funding at the 14th annual Cozad New Venture Competition, which features teams of student entrepreneurs developing products with the assistance of competition-supplied mentors. More than $180,000 dollars is available for funding for the finalist teams. The Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois hosts the competition.

“Cozad gives student entrepreneurs the chance to validate their ideas, form multidisciplinary teams, gain valuable feedback and advice from sponsors and mentors, and gives them the opportunity to compete alongside their peers for funding and prizes to help them reach the next stage,” Technology Entrepreneur Center marketing coordinator Danyelle Michelini said. “The competition helps teams meet deadlines and make progress by guiding them through the process and giving them the skills they need to reach each level.”

ECE graduate students on winning teams were Xinhao Wang, Tei-Wei Chang, and Jing Jiang of MoboSens, Umer Hassan of ElectroCyt, Thomas O’Brien of OCS Goaltending, and recent graduate Bobby Reddy, Jr. of ElectroCyt.

The winning ECE undergraduate students were Joshua Schultheiss and Soham Waychal of Flaming Cactus, Aaron Mann of Resdin Technologies Inc., Christopher Moy of MyHome, and Devasia Manuel of Food Origins.

Reddy and Hassan, along with the rest of the ElectroCyt team, were originally part of a research group at Illinois led by Professor Rashid Bashir, then later formed a startup using technology developed as a part of their PhD research.

To use it, patients prick their fingers on the device. Within 15 minutes, their results are available on an LCD screen and can be uploaded to the cloud for communication with doctors and specialists.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the ElectroCyt team’s development cycle.

“One problem we faced was cells blocking the channel, preventing other cells from going through the channel,” Reddy said. “Solving the problem was more or less trial and error. We experimented with different aperture sizes in our hole to prevent clogging and increase flow.”

ElectroCyt also faced hurdles in commercialization.

“Translating the technology from the lab to the public space was both very challenging and very exciting,” Hassan said. “I think finding the right market and preparing the business plan for our device were some of the new challenges that we experienced while working for Cozad. We also took an NSF ICorps Program here at Illinois managed by the Technology Entrepreneur Center, interviewed several medical doctors and company representatives, and talked to cancer patients to get an idea of their needs and how our product can address those needs.”

The biochip that the ElectroCyt device uses to count specific blood cells.
The biochip that the ElectroCyt device uses to count specific blood cells.

ElectroCyt won the second place prize for University-funded research at the Cozad competition, and was awarded $10,000 in funding. The team plans to expand by hiring new employees, obtaining lab space, and licensing technology from Illinois to further develop the product.

Another team, Mobosens, built a portable device to detect nitrate ions in water samples. An excess of nitrates in bodies of water can result in algal blooms and a lack of oxygen for the fish living in the ecosystem.

“The current way people detect contaminants is that they send water samples to a lab and get results in a few days or weeks,” Mobosens Chief Technical Officer Manas Gartia said. “You don’t have access to instruments in your hands, and with Mobosens we want to provide every single citizen with that access to do their own analysis. The device plugs into the audio jack in a smartphone and can come up with results in 42 seconds.”

In addition to much faster and more portable testing, the device uses the smartphone’s GPS to provide geographical data on where the water sample was taken, saving users the need to record the information. The water sample data is generated and visible on a Mobosens mobile app, and can be uploaded to the cloud instantly after the results are visible.

Mobosens won the Monsanto Sustainable Agriculture award at the Cozad competition and received $5,000 in funding. Mobosens is currently using its funding to develop devices with the ability to test for contaminants apart from simply excess nitrates, such as ammonium and phosphates.  

Another winning team poses a solution for wasted household energy. Schultheiss and Waychal, along with computer science undergrad Anirudh Kosaraju, created Flaming Cactus, a home automation system that is designed to determine patterns in home electricity use and automatically turn off unused appliances to save energy. The system also uses Bluetooth communication to track where the user is in the house, and keep appliances on that it would normally switch off if the user is still present. Notably, all of the members of the Flaming Cactus team were freshmen when they entered.

Flaming Cactus's logo.
Flaming Cactus's logo.

“It was fun going through the competition round by round and getting a feel for everyone else’s story,” team captain Schultheiss said. “There were 117 teams total at the beginning of the competition, and everyone’s road to that point was a little bit different.”

The team’s experience in developing its product wasn’t without hiccups, either.

“There are always days when we all are ready to throw in the towel, but it’s all about the bigger picture,” Schultheiss said. “Although many times along the way we’ve all considered the possibility of a way out, it’s been really exciting, there are always more reasons to go ahead than there are to stop, and we’re really excited for the future of development for this system.”

The Flaming Cactus team won $5,000 in funding and the Lextech Global Services award for best mobile app. The team plans on using its funding to determine the most cost-efficient components, new software for the device, and legal services related to forming an LLC and acquiring provisional patenting for its product. 

While the monetary awards to the top-placing teams were sizeable, “each student who enters Cozad isn’t there just to win money,” Michelini said. “They are there because they are truly passionate about being an entrepreneur and doing something that could possibly change the world.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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