May 4, 2020

School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Ups its Commercial Translation Game

Dave Brienza suspected there were more innovations with the potential to improve people’s lives lurking within the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS). So he decided to partner with the Innovation Institute to conduct a special edition of its Pitt Ventures First Gear technology commercialization program.

David Brienza, PhD, Associate Dean for Technology & Innovation

Brienza, associate dean for technology and innovation, was not disappointed. Teams of faculty and students from SHRS presented a wide range of projects, from a solution for preventing injuries to janitors, to a backpack device for preventing falls.

The cohort of seven teams was the first to complete the First Gear program virtually due to the COVID-19 restrictions. The program concluded with a pitch competition conducted via the Zoom collaboration platform where the seven teams vied for one of two $10,000 awards provided by the SHRS to assist in accelerating the innovations on the path to commercialization.

The winning teams were Impulse, which is developing a tether device for measuring force that can be used in athletic training, and Universal Data Logger (UDL), which is creating a software program that monitors communication performance for individuals who use assistive technology to communicate.  UDL sends important communicative metrics to clinicians for analysis so that they can adjust users assistive devices as necessary to maximize performance.

Michael O’Leary, a PhD student who served as UDL’s entrepreneurial lead, said the funding will be used to lay the foundation for UDL efficacy testing among users and clinicians. O’Leary worked under academic lead, Katya Hill, associate professor in the department of communication science and disorders. The team’s business mentor was Rick Miller.

O’Leary said the First Gear program provided an excellent introduction to business development and how to craft your message and identify your market.

“I feel that oftentimes lots of people have good ideas but they don’t know how to ‘sell it.’

“I feel that oftentimes lots of people have good ideas but they don’t know how to ‘sell it.’ First Gear helped with the ‘sell it’ piece, so that researchers who have good ideas are able to market their inventions,” he said.

Impulse, Matthew Darnell

Matthew Darnell, PhD, RD, SCCC, CSSD, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, SHRS

Impulse is the brainchild of Matthew Darnell of the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition and Elizabeth Nagle of the Department of Health and Physical Activity. They have been working with the Pitt swimming teams to develop the tether device and partnered with the Swanson Center for Product Innovation to create prototype of the device and computer interface.

They have previously earned more than $100,000 in internal Pitt commercialization funding to develop their idea from the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) and the Performance Innovation Tournament.

Tether Device Aims to Improve Swimmers’ Times, Go Beyond the Pool from University of Pittsburgh on Vimeo.

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 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).

The other teams participating in the spring 2020 cohort of First Gear included:



A non-invasive peripheral tibial nerve stimulation device to treat overactive bladder.

PI: Linda Burkett


A wheelchair maintenance monitoring system

PI: Anand Mhatre
EL: Erin Higgins
M: Adam Cunningham

(Perception-Action Coupling Task)

A real-time performance and alertness testing system to measure job readiness via behavior assessment

PI: Chris Connaboy
EL: Alice LaGoy
M: Anne Germain

Fairy Tale

Motorized balance assist device

PI: Goeran Fiedler, Dave Brienza,
EL: Alexandra Delazio, Linda Burkett
M: Paula Grendys, Kerry Hananhan


Digital device for accurate prostheses fitting

PI: Sara Peterson
EL: Tiffany Straub, Zack Anzelone
M: Phil Yeske

Guardians of the Workplace

Workplace injury prevention services and products

PI: Kelley Fitzgerald, Joel Stevans
EL: Sebastian Fearon
M: Glenn Watson


The next cohort of First Gear begins May 14, 2020. If you are doing sponsored research and are interested in determining the commercial potential of your idea or discovery, apply today.