Two Teams Receive Additional Funding to Accelerate on Path to Market

April 11, 2019

Nine teams of Pitt innovators, students, and regional business mentors pitched their innovations at the end of the latest cohort of the Pitt Venture First Gear Program. The developing innovations run the gamut from a cancer immunotherapy to a self-regenerating heart valve implant to a training program for teachers and therapists to help autistic children avoid outburts.

Two teams received additional cash awards from the Chancellor’s Innovation Commercialization Funds to expedite their path toward commercialization.

Receiving the $20,000 top award was the HerShield team led by Lisa Rohan, Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and clinical lead Katherine Bunge, Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Services, along with entrepreneurial lead Sravan Patel.

HerShield is developing a biodegradable vaginal film to prevent herpes, a sexually transmitted disease that affects 50 million in the U.S., primarily women.

Rohan said the underlying technology has been developed through more than $10 million in funding from the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, and that it has undergone initial clinical trials for safety and effective dosing levels. She added that the team has identified manufacturing partners.

Next steps include finalizing the product design and forming a start-up company around the technology. The Chancellor’s funding will be used to develop an instructional video for a new set of clinical trials to be conducted over the next 2 years.

Receiving the runner-up award was the High Accuracy Fiber Tracking team led by entrepreneurial lead Jessica Barrios-Martinez, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurological Surgery. The team is seeking to commercialization technology developed by Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery Fang-Cheng Yeh for improving the quality of magnetic resonance imaging scans of the brain to better highlight neural pathways in the brain.

The technology can allow surgeons operating on brain tumors to accurately plan surgeries to avoid causing damage to neural pathways for vision, motor control and more. The team is working to develop a commercial prototype of the product even as they have begun preliminary talks with existing medical imaging companies that may be interested in adding it to their product offerings.

“We had a very diverse and strong cohort of teams this spring with a variety of impactful innovations,” said Paul Petrovich, Assistant Director of Business Development at the Innovation Institute. “We will continue collaborating with them and directing them to the resources they need to successfully navigate their journey to the market.”

The First Gear program, offered by the Innovation institute, consists of six workshops where Pitt innovation teams, consisting of a principal investigator (PI), an entrepreneurial lead (EL), typically a graduate student or postdoc in the investigator’s lab/school, and an experienced a business mentor (M).

First Gear teams receive $3,000 from the Innovation Institute’s NSF I-Corps Site program to conduct pre-commercialization activities focusing on value proposition  and customer discovery. All teams completing the program are eligible to apply for the national I-Corps program, which provides $50,000 in funding to continue customer and value discovery.

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:

  • Monica Bush, Senior Global Product Manager – Advanced Innovation, Philips Sleep & Respiratory Care
  • Zariel Johnson, Program Manager Technical, UPMC Enterprises
  • Alethea Wieland, Founder & President, Clinical Research Strategies


Other teams participating in the recent First Gear cohort included:


A mobile app that helps diagnose the risk of cardiovascular disease by taking a photo of the eye.

PI: Syed Mahmood Ali Shah and Wei Gao
EL: Bushra Usmani
M: Adam Cunningham.

One Valve

Self re-generating bio-prosthetic heart valve.

PI: Garrett Coyan and William Wagner
EL: Antonio D’Amore
M: Jan Berkow

Universal Immune Receptor

A potent immunotherapy treatment that allows genetically modified T-cells to bind to different cancer antibodies, making them able to target numerous cancer types.

PI: Olivera Finn
EL: Jason Lohmueller
M: Brian Sullivan, Rickey Miller

CyteSolutions Lens

Time-released treatment for dry eye disease that treats the underlying cause and not only the symptoms.

PI: Mangesh Kulkarni, Bryan Brown
EL: Alexis Nolfi
M: Robert Huemmrich

Thinking in Speech

Cognitive therapy training for helping autistic children remain calm and solve problems

PI: Janice Nathan
EL: Barry Nathan
M: John Inserra

Power Drive

A driving analytics platform for power wheelchair users

PI: Brad Dicianno
EL: Deepan Kamaraj
M: Phil Marzolf


Device for measuring inter-ocular pressure in glaucoma patients

PI: Piervincenzo Rizzo
EL: Amir Nasrollahi
M: Dick Heilman, George Abrahim

If you are a Pitt innovator who would like to learn more about the process of taking an innovation from the lab to the market, consider attending a two-hour Innovation Igniter workshop. Here you will begin thinking about who potential customers for your innovation may be and what value your innovation may offer. Click here to learn more and register.