InVenture highlights students’ ingenuity

Enterprising Tech students got to stretch their creative minds this year with the InVenture Competition for a shot at thousands in prize money, patent filings and paid summer internships to work on taking the next steps in developing an invention.

The InVenture prize is a Tech initiative created to foster student innovation. The competition consisted of three rounds starting in November with a grand prize of $10,000 for the winning team and $5,000 for the winning individual, along with the opportunity to present their business plan at an innovation competition in Hong Kong. The InVenture individual and team winners were announced on March 30.

The winners also received free patent filings from the Georgia Tech Office of Technology Licensing and other resources to help develop their ideas further. According to the InVenture website, entries were scored on the following criteria: innovation, marketability, market size, inventor passion and probability of become a successful business.

The individual prize went to DialPrice, a phone service that allows users to check competitive product prices from any phone. DialPrice was invented by Roger Pincombe, a third-year CS major.

“You can use it from any phone…you don’t need a data plan, smart phone or anything like that. It is a [voice over internet protocol] system that answers the phone call, reads in the key presses and looks up the UPC code. The system tells you the price of the item at similar stores and outlets,” Pincombe said.

The idea for DialPrice arose during a Yahoo! Programming competition called Hack Week held last year, and Pincombe worked independently on the project until entering in the InVenture competition.

“I think that it is a great idea that Tech is trying to increase entrepreneurship within the community. It’s one thing we kind of lack, as there is not enough focus on building our own businesses and being inventive,” Pincombe said.

Pincombe plans to invest the $5,000 prize in a more stable VOIP provider with better text-to-speech capabilities and hopes to partner with cell phone providers to offer the feature as a part of bundled services.

The winning team entry for the InVenture Prize was a Chlorocyte Bioreactor developed by inventors Joe Abrahamson, Will Boyd, Sanjay Challa, Kento Masuyama and Andrew Punnoose. The team’s idea to research algae and its environmental applications formed last semester in September, even before the InVenture Prize was announced.

“We began investigating algae because it is very carbon negative…growing algae actually absorbs carbon emissions from the air,” said Joe Abrahamson, a third-year BMED.

After hearing about InVenture, the group jumped at the opportunity to participate in the competition. In many ways, the InVenture Prize was a great motivator for the team to make progress on their ideas.

“[InVenture] was perfect for our team because it gave us incentives to develop our product and a timeline to produce it,” said Will Boyd, a third-year CS and PHYS double major. “Since this was something we started even before InVenture was announced, we were all pretty passionate about it,” Boyd said.

The team’s invention consists of a photo bioreactor system and a harvester. The photo bioreactor system works by utilizing carbon dioxide emissions from sources like power plants to feed the algae. As the algae grows, carbon dioxide becomes bound in algal biomass. The harvester then collects the algae, which can be used for a myriad of other purposes. In that sense, the algae not only sequesters carbon dioxide but also is useful in other capacities.

“We realized that if the algae is grown directly at a power plant, the algae could convert carbon exhaust to clean exhaust while producing a valuable byproduct that can be used in many industries,” Abrahamson said.

Developing such an idea over a period of a few months comes with challenges in itself. “Managing the scope of the project was a challenge,” said Sanjay Challa, a third-year BMED. “A lot of [the work] was refining and limiting our scope into something we could tackle. The InVenture prize was helpful for establishing deadlines and making us do work that would get us somewhere.”

The team plans to use the $10,000 in prize money to first seek legal advice in getting incorporated as an official business. The team has a six-month and a five-year plan, which includes filing two patents, building a board of advisors, starting a capital campaign and contacting power plants to begin discussing the possibility of implementing a prototype.

Two other individuals and four other teams were selected as finalists in the InVenture competition. Runner-up in the InVenture individual competition was Ryan Turk, a fourth-year ME and inventor of the HIV Medication Scheduler.

“[The HIV Medication Scheduler] is a medication device for illiterate patients that allows them to semi-independently take medication,” Turk said.

Turk has taken his invention into the commercial sector by forming Time for Life, a company devoted to producing and distributing the medication schedulers throughout the developing world.

“Time for Life will be supported through a buy-one-give-one campaign in which you can buy a digital watch with regular functions, and for every one sold a medical reminder device will go to the developing world,” Turk said.

The project recently was recognized with the Clinton Global Initiative Award and aims to distribute 250 devices in Haiti through the fall of 2009.

“The support we have seen for this project, whether it be through faculty members or even other students, has been great,” said James Homesley, fourth-year MGT and managing partner of Time for Life.

The Time for Life team also includes Daniel Baily, Health Systems graduate student, Robert Poppell, fourth-year STAC, Anthony Mucciolo, fourth-year EE major, Jose Vidal, CMPE graduate student, Zach Van Schoyck, third-year ME and Nate Wilson, CS graduate student.

Another individual finalist Joy Buolamwini, a first-year CM, invented AdmissionsConquered, a web-based system designed to ease the college application process.

“I started in July of 2008, but I put the project on pause for first semester. The InVenture prize was the perfect opportunity to springboard what I had been working on,” Buolamwini said.

While this year’s competition has just drawn to a close, applications and letters of intent are already available for the 2010 InVenture Prize competition. Many of the winning team members had advice for future inventors and potential competitors in next year’s competition.

“Being passionate is good…but keep in mind that the whole package is necessary. You can’t be all about the technical side, but you can’t market a product that’s not going to work. You have to be mindful of the entire process,” said Kento Masuyama, third-year AE.

“The InVenture prize is a great vehicle to get you further along the road to creation of a business or invention, but it’s not the end in itself…it teaches you a lot. The business plan might take flight and you could really impact people with your invention,” said Andrew Punnoose, third-year AE.