October 26, 2016


A little over a year ago, Aeronics was a summer research project for PhD student Alex Kaija in assistant professor Christopher Wilmer’s chemical engineering lab.

Fast forward to today and Kaija, joined by fellow students Blake Dube and Mark Spitz, won the first place award in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition and second place in the inaugural Kuzneski Innovation Challenge Cup.

The two competitions are held annually as featured events to kick off the annual Pitt Innovation Showcase. This year’s event included a panel of healthcare investors who gave their perspective on translating life science discoveries from the lab to the market.wells_aeronics_cropped

The Aeronics team members are using the proceeds of its competition awards to develop a prototype of their product and conduct market research for their idea of concentrating an hour’s supply of oxygen in a portable device the size of an aluminum soda can. They are targeting people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and are evaluating other applications for emergency first responders, the military and sports.

The three are also currently progressing through the Pitt Blast Furnace student accelerator where they are continuing to work one-on-one with a business mentor to refine their business model and path to market as they have committed themselves to launching a startup around the device.

“We didn’t initially set out to be entrepreneurs, but we are excited at the opportunity that has unfolded and are grateful for all of the support we have received from the University and the Innovation Institute to translate our idea into a viable business,” Spitz said.

The Aeronics team earlier in the year also won the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, and was a finalist in the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh).

Now in its 6th year, the Wells Competition was established by Pitt alumnus and successful biotech entrepreneur and investor Michael Wells to stimulate student entrepreneurship in the healthcare arena. Last year, Mr. Wells announced he would double the top prize in this year’s competition to $20,000.

“I am encouraged each year at the increased quality of the applicants and their presentations,” Mr. Wells said. “Congratulations to all of this year’s award winners. And for the other teams, I say keep going as far as you can with your ideas. Every one of them has potential.”

Aeronics will also receive $5,000 in legal services from Morgan Lewis, a sponsor of the competition.

Second place ($10,000) was awarded to Layer Up, which is a novel coating for medical implants, initially targeting surgical mesh that prevents rejection and other complications.

Third place ($6,000) went to Emotion Prosthetics, which has developed Purrr, a wearable device with a mobile app that provides real-time monitoring and active on-command control of stress.

Other Wells  finalists included:

Esophocclude  An easy-to-swallow, self-expanding device that protects the patient from aspiration during intubation

Aquapore  A specialized prosthetic sock liner that provides enhanced moisture permeability preventing sweat buildup all day long and improving comfort for amputees

PerQ  A minimally invasive transcatheter system for patients who are ineligible for open heart surgery that bypasses coronary arteries, promotes quick recovery

AccelMOTION  A portable and wearable sensor for physical therapy patients that utilizes a research-based assessment system to evaluate patients, prevent injuries, and achieve good patient outcomes.


New Competition Created by Kuzneski family

To encourage Pitt student innovations outside the healthcare space, Andy and Laurie Kuzneski sponsored the creation of the Kuzneski Innovation Cup.

The Kuzneskis have been integral members of the region’s innovation and startup ecosystem for the past 20 years.  Both are active angel investors, mentors, and advisers to entrepreneurs and startups in the region. They are the owners of Kuzneski Financial Group, an employee benefits, insurance, and HR solutions firm that works with dozens of start-up and high growth companies.

kuzneskis_invisibleshield_cup“We were thrilled with the quality of the teams competing for the inaugural Kuzneski Cup,” Laurie Kuzneski said. “Choosing the award winners was an incredibly difficult task. We look forward to following the progress of all the teams as they work to develop their innovations into products that have an impact.”

First place winner ($10,000) was Invisible Shield, which is developing novel new security mechanism for smartphones. This technology authenticates a user based on how they hold, touch or move the device. The team is led by electrical and computer engineering PhD student Kent Nixon, who won a second-place award in the last Randall Family Big Idea Competition.

Third place winner ($3,000) is TopoSystems, a surface technology that tackles the issues of wastewater fouling by providing a method to increase filtration efficiency and decrease cleaning costs.

Other competitors for the Kuzneski Innovation Cup Competition included:

Triplenote An app for research data collection designed for students, faculty, and data supervisors. The app manages research data with embedded guidance and built-in safeguards to ensure consistency

BreathEnergizer Worn like a belt around the abdomen, the BreathEnergizer is a self-powered wearable breathing sensor system.  The data is sent directly to a smartphone app to help achieve correct and optimal breathing performance

Multi-functional Proppant  A technology using a proppant that removes and captures contaminants in hydraulic frac water reducing the cost and steps to clean the frac water

NLP Platform A research and clinical tool that combines novel text-visualizations to help users develop their own Natural Language Processing models for analysis of unstructured data.

3D Laser  A 3D-printed laser technology that is fully customizable. It uses an additive manufacturing process that allows for a reduced cost product with advanced features such as weight reduction and a compact uni-body laser.

For more information on all of the teams presenting at the Innovation Showcase, click here.