July 30, 2018

A team of Pitt researchers developing a high resolution microscope at a fraction of the size and cost of existing products was awarded $20,000 from the Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds at the demonstration day for the Pitt Ventures First Gear commercialization program.

Under the name miniSTORM, the team is led by Hongqiang Ma, research assistant professor in the lab of Yang Liu, associate professor, Department of Medicine and Department of Bioengineering, and director of the Biomedical Optical Imaging Laboratory. The team includes entrepreneurial lead Wenting Wang and business mentor David Charlton.

“In the next 6-12 months we want to use the awards to build the prototype system and demonstrate it. That is an important step to convince our potential customers and investors,” said Ma. “First Gear not only guided us on how to build a solid go-to-market plan, but also create a platform to bring together teams from different disciplines where we can share information and experiences and learn from each other to refine our projects.”

Receiving $5,000 was team BreathoMag, which is developing a support device for people with nasal obstruction. The team includes academic lead Prashant Kumta, professor Department of Bioengineering, entrepreneurial lead Puneeth Shridhar, a bioengineering PhD student, and business mentor Joanna Sutton, an Innovation Institute entrepreneur in residence.

First Gear teams receive $3,000 from the NSF I-Corps program to conduct pre-commercialization activities, such as market research and customer discovery. All teams completing the program are eligible to apply for the national I-Corps program, which provides another $50,000 in funding to continue on the path toward the market.

First Gear teams include a principal investigator (PI) which must be a Pitt faculty, and entrepreneurial lead (EL), typically a graduate student or postdoc in the investigator’s lab/school, or from the Katz Graduate School of Business, and a business mentor (M).

The Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Fund was established in 2016 to provide high potential innovations from Pitt labs with resources to continue the path toward commercialization.

Judges for the demo day included:

  • Allison Formal, director of the Coulter Translational Partners II program at the Swanson School of Engineering,
  • Kit Needham, director of the Project Olympus incubator at Carnegie Mellon University; and
  • Joe Swider, entrepreneur and strategic business advisor.


Other teams participating in the most recent First Gear cohort included:

A slide navigation system for digital pathology that creates a virtual microscope to navigate a digital slide

PI: Michael Landau
EL: Thomas Pearce
M: Robert Huemmrich


A new curriculum to teach cyber-physical systems

PI: Bruce Childers, Daniel Cole, William Clark, Adam Lee
EL: Steven Costello, Aisling Quigley
M: Philip Marzolf

Simple Platform for Analyzing Data Efficiently (SPADE)

Cloud-based platform for making interactive charts that provides an effective way to present and share complex data sets

PI: Qi Mi
EL: Jon Rutkauskas
M: William Kaigler

Nose on a Chip

New platform for pre-clinical testing

PI: Juan Carlos Celedon
EL: Nadia Boutaoui
M: Srinath Vaddepally, Jonathan Kaufman

If you are a Pitt investigator interested in learning more about the commercialization process for your lab’s discoveries, consider attending an upcoming Innovation Igniter session. These two-hour workshops help participants discover the value their ideas may offer to customers, as well as define who potential customers are and how to reach them.

Innovation Igniter:

August 15, 2018, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.
CMU Project Olympus
4620 Henry St., Pittsburgh PA 15213

Click here to register.

First Gear:

The next First Gear cohort will be being in September. Click here to register.