Demo Days showcase Princeton student entrepreneurs’ solutions to societal problems
Lead and other toxic impurities plague water systems around the world, and in the U.S. have left some mayors clamoring for options.
A team of Princeton University undergraduates is working on a solution.
At the campus Demo Day presentation on Aug. 13, Princeton junior Dimitris Ntaras told a panel of experts that his team had produced a prototype water filter that “aggressively target[s] heavy metal contaminants,” striving “to ensure that no one has to drink from polluted water sources again.”
They are just one of the groups participating in the eLab Summer Accelerator program of the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, which allows student entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop products that solve important societal problems.
For the past eight years, the Keller Center has sponsored the program, which culminates in two days of team presentations by student entrepreneurs. This year, the Demo Days were held on Aug. 13 in the Friend Center on campus and on Aug. 14 at the Manhattan headquarters of Serendipity Labs. Eight teams presented their new ventures through a two-minute introduction video, an eight-minute presentation pitch, and a five-minute Q&A session with panelists, including potential investors.
Margaret Martonosi, the Hugh Trumbull Adams '35 Professor of Computer Science and director of the Keller Center, opened the event by underscoring the mission of the center to provide a platform for faculty and students to “take on big problems and to move the world forward.” At the heart of the mission is an attention to interdisciplinarity, as she said it’s “really thrilling to get folks out their major silos and to see the bigger picture.”
The Keller Center’s eLab Accelerator provides student entrepreneurs a supportive environment with education, resources and work space. Faculty members mentor the groups, guiding project milestones and plans, as well as supporting the creation of products over a 10-week period. The Keller Center also provides workshops, lectures, and networking opportunities, legal and accounting services, as well as curating and developing the tools the teams need to succeed. A $5,000 stipend per team member and a business expense account for each team provides access to critical funds.
Cornelia Huellstrunk, executive director of the Keller Center, underscored the important social impact of many of the projects. She noted that “40% of the startups are social ventures […] that have a primary mission of social good.”
Ben Yu, one of the event’s expert panelists and a managing partner at Sierra Ventures, said commitment to social progress can be a critical component of business, and is something his firm values.
“As an alum, I was very impressed and proud to be part of the Keller Center Demo Day program. Every team did a fantastic job and the pitches were all very polished,” said Yu, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1998. “Most projects were impact-driven and featured simple innovative solutions.”
Teams pitched a variety of projects ranging from harnessing wastewater as a source of energy to improving medical devices and investing in social impact companies in Africa. Teams represented an array of student majors, covering the fields of anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, economics, public and international affairs, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, as well as a range of engineering disciplines.
Team members said that the summer program and the Keller Center more broadly helped them to apply what they learned in their classes at Princeton and supplemented classroom knowledge with experiential learning. Team Uproot co-founder Nick Leiter, who recently received his master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in June, noted that team members learned a lot about the process of learning itself, “whether learning about our consumer, or the qualities of the product we’re offering, or about the partnerships and people that we’re meeting, at the end of the day, it needs to be a learning environment above everything else.”
AquaCerta won the UPitchNJ statewide award for “Best Early Stage Startup” in May 2019 for their filtration device that removes impurities and heavy metals from water. As Aditya Shah, a co-founder and rising senior in economics said, the team’s research estimates that “every day, 2 million tons of toxic effluent enters [ground] water, polluting it with dangerous metals,” affecting the health and livelihood of millions of people around the world in their communities.
The team also comprises co-founders Ntaras, a rising junior in anthropology, and Ryan Thorpe, a rising sophomore in electrical engineering. After four years of research and testing at Emory and Princeton universities, they have developed a filter that is “as efficient as reverse osmosis,” but “at a fraction of the cost,” said Thorpe. The filter can purify water at the rate of one gallon per minute, he said.
The team hopes that the product will be deployed in locations around the world where industrial pollution and natural disasters make water unsafe to consume for cooking and drinking, such as sites currently being helped by nonprofits such as Water Health International. The company aims to further develop their filters to be cheaper than the current price of water supplemented by aid organizations. As Ntaras said, “this product is first of all a social and developmental good.”
Miles Cole, a rising junior in psychology who has hemophilia, has had to inject himself with medication every other day. This need urged him to find a more accurate method for helping people to give themselves injections. In his pitch, he said that his team's “vertical injection technology” makes the device “small, safe and easy to use on oneself, cost efficient, and much more accurate than manually infusing.”
Besides the inconvenience of giving injections, there are also common medical risks for patients, costing the U.S. “approximately $3 billion a year” for subsequent infections and injuries caused by errant needle sticks, said the team. Even trained professional nurses inject perfectly on the first attempt only around 75% of the time on average across the country. If Invictis’ device, called VITA, can reach 95% accuracy, it will be a substantial improvement over existing methods, said Cole.
The vertical injection technology VITA uses also increases accuracy. Cole said the device uses a “novel optical infrared sensing to create a 3D map of the vasculature” rather than the visual spectrum that humans use to find a vein. In addition to helping home users, the device could “drastically increase the efficiency of care in hospital, military, emergency response and disaster relief settings” said the team, which also includes rising juniors in electrical engineering Robert Shi and Ben Laitner, rising senior Hassaan Khan in mechanical engineering, and rising junior in chemistry Matthew Marquardt.
Rising senior economics major Tiffany Chen founded Karyo, a concert review platform. She was frustrated by not being able to find reviews to help her decide which concerts were worth her limited time and money. Noting the widespread use of online review sites for restaurants and other services, she saw a need for a crowd-sourced concert review platform.
During their market research, Chen and her teammates, rising junior computer science majors Daniel Huynh and Christy Lee, as well as Austin Lau, a rising sophomore in operations research and financial engineering, found that “66% of millennials have attended a concert in the last year, and 68% said that their ticket purchasing habits would be significantly influenced by concert reviews.” Therefore, the potential market for the platform could reach 50 million people.
Beyond helping audiences spend time and resources more wisely, the service also aims to help lesser-known artists be discovered through its social networking aspects. The product may benefit musicians who will receive audience feedback on their performance, helping them to tailor their set lists, performance approaches or other aspects of their shows. The team said that music industry professionals can derive value in knowing the aspects of live shows that fans enjoy, as well as see larger trends in popularity of emerging artists or genres.
Farmers in African nations often have restricted access to funds, which creates a landscape of small-scale farms that are costly to run and unable to meet food needs. Kolanut Capital, a student-founded investment company, operates subsidiaries in emerging African markets to provide these farmers better access to funding. The company estimates that the shortage of dairy supply alone in Kenya could be valued at as much as $600 million. “Even for essentials like milk and poultry in the country of Ghana, for example, only 10% of supply is produced in the country, while 90% is imported from Europe,” said CEO Alexander Asante, who graduate in June with a degree in electrical engineering.
This also creates a situation in which foreign producers take profits out of the region, and local people do not see those profits reinvested in their communities. The company aims to grow local economies and provide residents with essential products and services, said the Class of 2019 team members Hannington Omwanza and Chege Gitau, who concentrated in economics and computer science, respectively, as well as rising junior in sociology Jinn Park and rising senior in philosophy Kevin Parker.
Quick access to medicine often is vital to successful treatment. Especially for children, older adults, and those with life-threatening medical conditions, being able to have doses of medicine close at hand at all times can be potentially lifesaving, said founders of mSTAT, a company producing a wearable medication storage solution that can give people access to their medicine no matter where they are.
Current pill storage solutions often need to be attached to keys or carried in pockets or bags where they can reduce the medication to dust, said company founder Grace Doyle. mSTAT aims to solve all of these problems in a portable and fashionable way with the benefit of anti-crush capabilities.
Doyle, a rising junior in the Woodrow Wilson School, said she was inspired to solve this problem by her own experience with migraines and a family member’s survival of a heart attack. Doctors credit quick access to medication with lessening the negative effects of both conditions. The team, which includes rising sophomore in chemical and biological engineering Matthew Adler, and rising junior in operations research and financial engineering Christian Berry, estimates that there are “over 150 million American individuals at risk of a heart attack or who suffer from migraines,” two conditions that require quick access to medication. They hope to gain a sizeable portion of this potential market, bringing their product to at least 18 million consumers across the United States, said Doyle.
The NuBoot, an invention of the NuHeal eLab team, provides a light-weight solution for people with foot and ankle injuries to regain mobility and autonomy. Courtney O’Brien, a rising senior in the Woodrow Wilson School, said she was inspired to create the technology through first-hand experience with negative side effects of wearing an orthopedic boot and through conversations with her father, who is an orthopedic surgeon.
The company’s mission is to reduce the “loss of normal joint motion, cartilage deterioration and muscle atrophy,” among other complications that can result from wearing walker boots, said O’Brien. To do this, they developed NuFlex, a joint mobility technology that allows the ankle to freely flex, extend and rotate in its natural and unconstrained motion. This reduces complications and healing times, said the team, which also consists of rising seniors Jessica Fan, majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Malika Oak, majoring in computer science, and Robbie von der Schmidt, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Team members interviewed more than 20 medical professionals and 100 patients to refine its design. They said their boot is lighter-weight, more breathable, and has more moisture-wicking materials than the products currently on the market. They also added a zipper to replace the numerous straps on current models. These improvements could improve compliance and help patients heal better and faster, said the team.
Physicians who reviewed the new design were “extremely excited about the many improvements,” said O’Brien.
Some 12.5 million patients in the United States annually suffer from injuries that may benefit from such a technology, noted the team.
Daily, millions of gallons of treated wastewater flow into creeks, rivers and other bodies of water. The motion of this constantly flowing water can be harnessed to serve as a powerful renewable energy source, said co-founders of Reclaim Energies, Melanie Porras and Tobi Ayeni, rising juniors in civil and environmental engineering. The two evolved this idea from a physics class project. Originally, they thought “it would be extraordinary if you could power your phone or electric toothbrush just from washing your hands or taking a shower every day,” Porras recalls. They then thought bigger and concluded that applying the concept to wastewater treatment plants could save facilities as much as 30% of their electricity use, which would create an enormous relief to the environment and municipal water budgets.
The idea works by using an ancient turbine technology created by Greek mathematician Archimedes over 2,000 years ago, said Ayeni. Since the turbine uses the weight of water rather than the speed of water flowing through it, the technology allows for nearly constant energy generation, even when pipes are not full, said the team, which also consists of Nadia Ralston, a rising junior in civil and environmental engineering, and José Pabon, a graduate student in mathematics.
Wastewater treatment plants in the United States alone could represent “an almost $2 billion market,” said Ayeni. First, the company will focus on the 142 wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey, with plans to scale up nationwide.
Military families move frequently, finding it difficult to save for a home of their own. Homeownership offers an important vehicle for financial security, since “for the average American, over 80% of their wealth in retirement comes from home equity,” said Uproot co-founder John Falcone, who earned a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton earlier this year.
Uproot would give military families a vehicle for owning their own home by offering a financial instrument and lending strategy to help them collaborate on payments over the life of the mortgage, said co-founder Nick Leiter, who earned a master's degree from the Woodrow Wilson School this year.
The financial product, called an assumable mortgage, works with military families’ existing Veteran’s Administration benefits to allow one family to pick up mortgage payments in the year left off by the previous family, said Leiter and Falcone, who are both military officers. This innovation allows homeowners to avoid the cycle of continually paying initial years’ heavy interest payments, avoid the uncertainty of the real estate market and build home equity.
The team also consists of Paige Bentley, a rising junior in operations research and financial engineering; Bunmi Otegbade, who recently completed a master’s degree in the Woodrow Wilson School; Leondard Merkin, a rising senior in civil and environmental engineering; and Alvaro Morales, a rising sophomore in economics. Team members said the company aims to help with the 270,000 military family moves each year by better leveraging approximately $47 billion in unused VA home loan benefits.