Pennvention winners imagine organs on demand

Weiss Tech House, the student-run hub for innovation located in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been hosting invention competitions since its inception over a decade ago. Its annual Pennvention event was held on Monday, April 6, and, with the help of partners from the local business, technology, and venture capital communities, saw the distribution of more than $20,000 in prizes to student innovators and their teammates from around the University.

Among them were Daniel Cabrera, a senior studying computational biology at Penn Engineering, and Ricardo Solorzano and Sohaib Hashmi, staff research specialists in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Together, they formed team BioBots, which took first place for a 3D-printer that can sculpt cell cultures into miniature organs.      

Like an ink-jet printer, 3D-printers have a moving nozzle that translates a digital pattern from a computer into a physical one.

“In this case, instead of using ink, the printer uses a solution of biomaterials,” says Cabrera.

After extruding the cell solution in the desired pattern, an attached ultraviolet light causes it to harden. This allows the printer to lay down another layer of the pattern on top of the first, gradually building up a three-dimensional shape. Containing living, growing cells and vasculature to feed them, these constructs can serve as model organs for experimentation.

The BioBots team envisions the technology advancing to a stage where fully functional artificial organs could be made to order from a patient’s own cells.

The team won the $5,000 grand prize, as well as a review from DreamIt Ventures, a business accelerator program based in New York City that gives fledgling companies seed money, workspace, and mentorship in order to get their ideas off the ground. 

Next steps will be to add a second extruder, so constructs containing multiple cell types could be printed at once, as well as a sterile enclosure for the printer.   

Second place and $2,500 went to LifePatch, a team that proposed a wearable device that provides real-time updates on the user’s body temperature.

Third place and $1,000 went to GoogolPlex, an alumnus of the PennApps contest, which aims to extend the iPhone’s “Siri” capability to third-party programs like Spotify and SnapChat. GoogolPlex won an additional $1,000 from MentorTech Ventures and a business analytics software package from RJMetrics.

Another finalist, GovPredict, which forecasts congressional votes, also won a summer’s worth of office space from Venturef0rth.