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Cullen Student Among Innovators at UH Tech Bridge
Bryan Luhn
Jason Shi, a computer engineering student at the Cullen College of Engineering, is collaborating with staff at the Technology Bridge to develop his smart planters.
Jason Shi, a computer engineering student at the Cullen College of Engineering, is collaborating with staff at the Technology Bridge to develop his smart planters.

In music, perfect pitch is the innate ability to identify and recreate any note without hearing it first. It’s what musicians strive for, a rare level of excellence only a gifted few can achieve. Baseball pitchers also dream of the perfect pitch; maybe it’s a violently spinning, sharply dropping two-strike, two-out offering on the outside corner in the bottom of the ninth inning which the opposing batter helplessly flails at and misses to end Game 7 of the World Series.

And the perfect pitch is something innovators and entrepreneurs hope for, too, as they seek to commercialize their groundbreaking ideas and technologies by finding partners and investors who can help get them to market. A new program at the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge is giving them the opportunity to do exactly that.

 “Our inaugural Startup Pitch Day was an opportunity for our innovators and entrepreneurs to show the world what they are capable of,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. “Here, ideas and dreams take flight, propelling groundbreaking solutions and technologies into the marketplace.”

Technology Bridge’s Innov8 Hub is a founder-driven series of accelerator programs for early-stage startups led by UH faculty, students and staff in partnership with Technology Bridge, the Innovation Center and the Texas Gulf Coast Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The “Innovators to Founders” cohort features six to eight aspiring entrepreneurs  who want to explore bringing their ideas to market, including through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants, and they receive all the tools needed to launch their ventures.

 “The goal of the programs is for the founders to launch new ventures and develop business plans they can use to raise money and attract C-suite level employees to join their team,” said Tanu Chatterji, associate director of startup development at Tech Bridge and co-founder of Innov8 Hub. “These programs aren’t classroom-teacher driven so the founders have to commit to engage and spend the time necessary to reap the benefits.”

 At the end of the three-month program, each founder has the opportunity to showcase their work in front of the innovation community, including potential partners and investors, at Startup Pitch Day.

“We bring in people from the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem… leaders, mentors, advisors and successful startup founders,” said Robert Johnson, co-founder of Innov8 Hub and UH Small Business Development Council business advisor. “Not only are they learning from the best of the best, but they are also pitching their technologies and innovations to them and getting instant feedback and validation.”

The First Cohort

The inaugural “Innovators and Founders” class consisted of six early-stage entrepreneurs developing potentially game-changing technologies.

Upon returning home from a recent vacation, Jason Shi saw that all of his plants had died while he was away. Then he saw an opportunity.

 “That’s when I thought of creating a high-tech planter, a device that autonomously takes care of your plants and keeps them healthy while you’re gone” said Shi, a Cullen computer engineering student. “I discovered many people love plants but struggle taking care of them properly, so I wanted to make plant care simple and manageable for them.”

 Shi had the basic idea and design for his planter but didn’t know a lot about sales, marketing and dealing with investors. That’s where Innov8 Hub was crucial to his growth, with a focus on market analysis, business planning and making his product appealing to investors.

 “I received valuable feedback, which was eye-opening,” Shi said. “The diverse environment and interaction with other early-stage innovators who were on similar paths provided me with unique perspectives. It was an incredible journey of learning and growth.”

Shi’s next step is to test his product with customers and use the feedback to refine it before taking it to a broader audience. And he hopes to continue collaborating with Technology Bridge and the SBDC to deepen his understanding of marketing, sales and consumer behavior.

UH Technology Bridge is Houston’s premier park for technology commercialization, industrial partnerships and startup development. For seven of the past eight years, UH has ranked among the top 100 universities globally for the number of utility patents issued. UH is also home to the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate entrepreneurship program, the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. It's a booming community where research and innovation are thriving. And now the search is on for the next group of aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs ready to grow their ideas.

“We pride ourselves on spurring innovation from the first spark of an idea to the transfer of knowledge and technology,” Chatterji said. “If you don’t know how to get started, or your schedule is busy, we will work with you. We will make sure you get the coaching and tools you need to be successful as you take the next step in your entrepreneurial journey.”

UH chemistry professor Shoujun Xu is a seasoned researcher and innovator in the field of magnetic-based techniques for molecular and cellular imaging and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). His latest innovation is a new technique of super-resolution force spectroscopy, or SURFS.

 “SURFS is based on using acoustic radiation force, or ultrasound, and atomic magnetometry to precisely measure biomolecular interactions,” Xu said. “Our aim is to use this technique for drug screening with unprecedented resolution and specificity.”

 Xu’s group has been developing the technique for more than 10 years, and notes that UH already holds three patents that cover concept, instrumentation and applications.

 “The Innov8 Hub program taught me everything I know about technology commercialization,” Xu said. “The weekly seminars, focused on the basic tools needed to bring an idea to market, offered diverse, constructive critiques that helped me understand how to present our product to a broader audience.

 The Pitch Day audience deemed Xu’s presentation the best of the night and he was awarded $7,500 in legal services to help his business venture and one year of coworking space free of charge. Xu says the program has positioned his company, UForce Biotechnology, for launch in the near future.

Easy Anyama, a fourth-year student in the UH College of Optometry, says ODX Health is a collection of ideas that has been evolving for the past four years. The company focuses on improving data harmonization, interoperability and integration in eyecare to reduce inefficiencies and enhance health outcomes. With growing interest in technologies like artificial intelligence, Anyama wants to ensure digital eyecare is safe, reliable and optimal for patients, providers and the industry as a whole.

 “We have been post-revenue for three months now and we are receiving a surprising amount of interest in our work, which is promising,” Anyama said. “Next I’m going to finish optometry school then see where the future takes everything.”

 Anyama says the accelerator program was crucial to his growth as an entrepreneur and his company’s future success.

 “The program helped a lot with how to present ODX to non-experts, as well as providing a great environment for feedback, brainstorming and networking, and I was blessed with a lot of great mentors,” Anyama said. “Our future strategy is definitely in a great place.”

Anyama’s second entry in the Pitch Day event was a team effort with fellow fourth-year optometry student Jeremy Tee.

 “The idea for Ringit was the brainchild of a previous mentor of mine,” Anyama said. “I joined in the research and later the development and commercialization efforts. About a year ago, I brought Jeremy onto the team due to how well his passions and talents aligned with the project.”

 Ringit aims to address the challenge of medication management for the visually impaired. With a substantial number of people living with visual impairments, most of whom don’t use Braille, they saw a need for a practical, low-cost solution.

 “Ringit is an innovative and adaptive labeling system that allows for identification of medication and their dosages through intuitive, touch-based features, enhancing independence and safety,” Tee said.

 Tee says the next steps are finalizing the product design and getting it into the hands of eyecare providers for feedback before preparing initial manufacturing and distribution efforts.

“The program has been instrumental in supporting our commercialization process and the future looks bright,” Tee said. “They have provided great guidance for navigating and utilizing SBIR and STTR programs effectively and their support has been useful in furthering our product and commercialization strategy.”

Jan Beetge, founder of AltiSora, says the idea for his oil-based, “green” waterproofing application AltiSeal grew out of frustration with wood treatments that either didn’t work or didn’t last very long.

 “While working with some red cedar siding on a project, I used every sealant and UV protectant available in the hardware stores, but the appearance faded over time,” Beetge said. “Then, after cracks formed in the wood during the freeze in ’21, I saw a serious need for an environmentally friendly product that not only preserved the wood’s original appearance in an outdoor setting but extended its service life as well.”

 The application, which Beetge says is like “Botox for wood,” is based on high sustainability raw materials that are non-hazardous and non-toxic. He’s grateful for the guidance and support the Innov8 Hub provided.

 “The accelerator program helped refine the value proposition and open up new and exciting market opportunities,” Beetge said. “Critique and feedback from all members of the group helped bring focus to various aspects of our business plan, and it helped to have a soundboard to validate our ideas.”

 To register for the “Innovator to Founder” Spring ’24 cohort, click here.

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