Tommy Richardson is a bioengineering doctoral candidate in the lab of Associate Professor Ipsita Banerjee. They have discovered what they believe is a superior substrate for growing human pluripotent stem cells for use in clinical trials and in cell replacement therapy.

Even as they continue gathering data to prove that their new substrate works and begin developing a prototype, they are also exploring how to bring the discovery to market where it can have an impact on treating diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and heart disease. These are all ailments where cell replacement therapies are heralded as potential breakthrough treatments.

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Bioengineering PhD candidate Tommy Richardson pitches VitaCapsule at the Pitt Ventures First Gear Demo Day.

To receive the training and mentorship needed to begin the commercial translation process, Richardson and Banerjee applied to the recent Pitt Ventures First Gear program cohort specifically for innovations from the Swanson School of Engineering.

Operated by the Pitt Innovation Institute, First Gear takes innovation teams through a rigorous customer discovery and value proposition development process, aided by $3,000 in initial funding through the NSF I-Corps program. A total of 10 teams participated in the cohort. Teams that complete the First Gear program are eligible to apply for $50,000 in follow-on funding from the I-Corps program to continue de-risking their technology in order to attract potential investment and licensing partners.

“As an engineer, it’s easy to focus on our technology in the lab and the potential industrial application, without getting feedback from actual customers. In the First Gear program, we had to think more in terms of what customers would buy, and had to actually get out and talk to potential customers to fully understand their need,” Richardson said. “Getting feedback from physical customers instead of making assumptions about their needs is key to making a good product.”

Collaborating with Innovation Institute business mentor Robert Huemmrich, Richardson and Banerjee honed their intellectual property protection strategy and began developing a revenue model for their technology.

Funding for Further Development

At the recent conclusion of the program, they also developed an investor pitch for the technology and edged out the other teams in the cohort to win a $10,000 award funded by the Chancellor Innovation Commercialization Funds program. Richardson said the team, under the name VitaCapsule, is now approaching a bioreactor company in their target market to assist in developing their prototype.

A total of 10 teams participated in the cohort. Teams that complete the First Gear program are eligible to apply for $50,000 in follow-on funding from the I-Corps program to continue de-risking their technology in order to attract potential investment and licensing partners.

Receiving a runner-up award of $5,000 was the team dubbed Steeltown Innovations, which has developed a flexible arm retractor surgical tool for quickly and conveniently positioning lighting or a camera for minimally invasive surgical procedures.

A prototype for the device has been developed with the aid of a $45,000 grant from the Pitt Center for Medical Innovation. They have also received $15,000 in in-kind support from local business accelerator Idea Foundry.

The team is led by Dr. Peter Allen, a senior resident training in general surgery at UPMC and Dr. Jeffrey Vipperman, Vice Chair of the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department, where he founded and directs the Sound, Systems, and Structures Laboratory.

Applications are accepted into the Pitt Ventures First Gear Program on a rolling basis. If you are a Pitt student or faculty member ready to begin the commercialization process, click here to get started.

First Gear cohorts can be tailored for an individual school or department. To learn more contact Jennifer Ireland.