STEM startup ideas showcased at Pennovation Center

Three years ago, just as the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) was getting off the ground, its leaders applied for and won a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to launch a startup accelerator at Penn. Designed to facilitate commercialization of University research, the program, which actively trains and mentors participants, has assisted 73 Penn-affiliated teams since.

Its sixth cohort, which included a group of 12 unique teams with STEM-related ideas for startups, concluded its fall course last Thursday with a showcase at the Pennovation Center. Despite the chilly weather that evening, students, faculty members, and even investors all showed up—and were ready to ask questions.

Three groups gave five-minute pitch presentations, starting with LungDurance, which is working to create an engineered device that copies the way lungs operate in the chest, with the hope of keeping the lung alive outside of the body for a longer period of time.

“We do this through mimicking the chest wall, making it personalized, making it transportable,” said Collin Stabler, a postdoctoral fellow in the Perelman School of Medicine. “And what we are going to do is decrease damage to those lungs, increase the viability of them past six hours, [and] inevitably increasing the number of lungs we have available for transplant.”

Then came DentaCheck—a “spellcheck for dental radiology,” as Laura Ceccacci, a part-time graduate student at Penn who’s been working in the dental field for seven years, noted during the presentation. It’s a cloud-based, HIPPA compliant dental technology that enables the reading of dental x-rays by pattern recognition and deep learning.

“It would point out areas, similar to spellcheck, that would need further review,” she said.

Chatting after the pitch, Soumyashant Nayak, a postdoctoral researcher in bioinformatics at the Smilow Center for Translational Research, who’s also working on DentaCheck, said I-Corps has been beneficial for many reasons, but mostly it exposed him and his team to ideas about their project, especially while doing market research, that “you’d never even think about.” Also, he said learning from the other startups in the cohort, all facing similar challenges, was immensely helpful.

Last, but certainly not least, to present was ReNeuron, a project based off of 10 years of research by Kacy Cullen, a research assistant professor of neurosurgery at Penn Medicine. The team has created implantable bioengineered brain pathways. Unlike anything ever developed before, this technology can simultaneously replace lost neurons and restore damaged axon connections, and has the potential to help patients regain motor function.

“Current treatments can only treat the symptoms,” said Justin Burrell, a bioengineering Ph.D. student at Penn. “Our technology can actually treat the underlying disease.”

Right now, already working with significant funding, as well as patents for their product, ReNeuron is focusing on tackling Parkinson’s disease.

“With current therapies, when they are no longer useful, you can end up in a state of persistent motor systems, you can’t move at all,” Burrell explained. “What we do right now is put it all back together. Our bioengineered pathways can simultaneously replace lost neurons and their connections ... ultimately patients will have the ability to regain their motor functions.”

The three startups were met with specific questions from Barbara Schilberg, the managing director and CEO of BioAdvance, a prominent early stage funder of life science startup companies in the region. It served as good practice for the future pitches the teams hope to make as they further develop their ideas. After the presentations, visitors mingled with the other nine teams—3D Optics, Basin-Logix, Bone on a Chip, Eager, Jetlag Goggle, Naanoscope, Neonur, NurseMatch, and Zmartar.

Completion of the Penn I-Corps program qualifies participants to apply to participate in the National Science Foundation’s National I-Corps Teams program, which provides a $50,000 grant, as well as training and mentoring, and significantly increases subsequent Small Business Innovation Research award rates, all helping to move technologies forward in their path to market.

No matter the startups’ next steps, says Laurie Actman, chief marketing, communications, and programs officer of PCI, it’s important to use I-Corps as a means to de-risk ideas.

“A lot of you know startups are hard, but every time you try to get an idea to the market via a startup, you learn a lot,” she told the group. “We hope that through this process, whether you move this idea forward through a startup or you move onto your next idea, that you have a much better understanding of how to do that.”

The Penn I-Corps program is managed with Actman by PCI employee Tomas Isakowitz. For more information about the program, visit the PCI website.