Pitt Students Forge Ahead to Complete Randall Family Big Idea Competition

Medical School team wins $25,000 top prize with platform for recycling biomedical waste

April, 23, 2020

As Pitt School of Medicine and research students, James O’Brien (Physician Scientist Training Program), Noah Pyles (Physician Scientist Training Program) and Jonathan Cohen (Medical Scientist Training Program, 3rd year of his PhD) witnessed the tremendous amount of plastic biomedical waste generated in hospitals, clinics, and university laboratories.

That’s when they added healing the planet to healing the body as part of their life mission, becoming entrepreneurs along the way.

Last year, the trio formed Polycarbin, a company that seeks to better manage the biomedical waste stream to enhance recycling. They are the 2020 recipients of the top prize of $25,000 in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition.

polycarbin team randall family big idea competition 2020

“We did not necessarily set out to become entrepreneurs, rather, we came to medical school and pursued science to analyze, understand and solve problems,” said Pyles. “The biomedical plastic crisis happens to be an enormous problem that we have contributed significantly to, and we think we have developed a solution.”

This year’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition kicked off February 14, 2020, with an entrepreneurship bootcamp. Just after narrowing the field to the final 40 teams of 112 students from nine Pitt schools, however, the competition ground to a halt with the closing of the campus for the remainder of the semester.

Entrepreneurs are frequently required to pivot their business plans as they work to bring their products and services to market.

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in the middle of last month, the Big Idea Center for student innovation and entrepreneurship quickly transitioned the Big Idea Competition to a virtual format in order to complete the competition under the current social distancing circumstances prior to the semester’s end.

“We did our own customer research by reaching out to the students on options for moving forward with the competition. They were almost unanimous in their desire to complete the competition now as opposed to postponing till the summer or fall,” said Babs Carryer, Big Idea Center director.

The Big Idea Competition awards $100,000 in total prizes thanks to the generosity of Pitt trustee and alum Bob Randall, and his family.

Watch a full replay of the awards ceremony below.

For a listing of the all participating teams and their members, view the event program.

Other prize winners in this year’s competition include:

2nd place: $15,000

Laser Lines: digital laser alignment device for prosthetics to increase patients’ mobility and independence

Reachable: Creates simple, independent, portable, and inexpensive devices that enable people with limited mobility to live independently

Sterile Vision: Augmented Reality system for doctors and nurses to use in the operating room to improve efficiency and effectiveness


3rd place: $5000

Canal: device to prevent your cellphone battery from overheating and thereby losing battery effectiveness

Noma AI: patient monitoring system using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to help reduce medical errors

SimpL: Augmented Reality-based workout app to improve form and prevent injury

ZeroDK: smart toothbrush holder to track oral hygiene and ideally lower dental premiums


4th place: $2000

CardioRevivalists: a way to rejuvenate hearts to increase the donor pool for transplants

NanoNares: nose-on-a-chip technology for disease, drug and vaccine modeling

PENY: Patient Experience Navigator, a real time patient experience analytics platform for patients to voice complaints in the hospital

SunPatch+: a wearable patch that gives you a visual indicator of when to reapply sunscreen

Video award: $2000




Each winning team is invited to participate in the Big Idea Center’s Blast Furnace accelerator where they will continue to develop their ideas and have access to entrepreneurs in residence.

This year’s ceremony featured messages of congratulations and encouragement from Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research.

“As you have surely learned through this competition, innovation and entrepreneurship are not for the faint of heart,” Rutenbar said. “Every accomplishment and step forward brings with it a fresh set of problems to solve and hurdles to climb. But for those who have been bitten by the bug, the trials of entrepreneurship are no match for the sheer exhilaration of bringing a new product or service into being and seeing it improve another

Several competition alumni, who have all launched startups in the Pittsburgh region, also offered words of encouragement. They included Noah Snyder (2015) of Interphase Materials;  Collin Wolf of Cassian Solutions; Jay Murray of Solinius; and Utkars Jain of Heart io, as well as last year’s winner, Emily Siegel of Trek Gum.

Any student interested in getting involved in innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt can contact the Big Idea Center at bigidea@pitt.edu

Read More in the Pittwire article below:

Pittwire Article "Student Tenacity Showcased at the Big Idea Competition"