1,000 Pitches contest showcases the spirit of innovation at U-M

December 11, 2008

ANN ARBOR— Against the backdrop of the faltering economy, more than 1,000 members of the University of Michigan community put forth their ideas for new businesses, inventions and non-profit groups in a contest named after its goal: 1,000 Pitches. Seven of them won $1,000 prizes.

Organizers say all of them offer reassurance that the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive.

Winners were announced at a ceremony Wednesday night. They include a chemical engineering doctoral student who wants to make biofuels out of wastewater; a business and Japanese studies master?s student who envisions hearing aids and cell phones that work well in noisy places; and an undecided freshman with a plan to adopt recyclable drinking cups across campus.

Organized by the student group MPowered Entrepreneurship and the College of Engineering?s Center for Entrepreneurship, the contest started in September and exceeded its expectations. Largely due to the canvassing approach of MPowered, the contest gathered 1,044 pitches. Most were from undergraduate and graduate students, but several came from staff and faculty members.

“This competition is part of the College’s ongoing push to make entrepreneurship a larger part of our educational program. I am so proud of the student organizers and all those who participated,” said Dave Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “This demonstrates that even in this difficult economy, there is hard work being done to position us for the future.”

The winners in each of the seven categories are:

  • Environmental: Robert Bernard Levine, a doctoral student in Chemical Engineering, proposes using microalgae to produce biodiesel and treat wastewater at the same time. Levine, who is working on this as part of his Ph.D. research, says such a system would allow us to “take carbon dioxide out of the air, clean the water, and fill gas tanks with fuel made locally.”
  • Local Business: Jason Bornhorst, a senior Computer Science and Engineering major, is a developer of the website CampusRoost, a location-based social networking platform for campus neighborhoods. Launched to Ann Arbor on the first day of school this year, CampusRoost reached 30 percent market penetration, Bornhorst said.
  • Green Campus: Alex Joseph Levine, an undecided freshman in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, proposes that all cups the University uses on campus be recyclable. This could involve finding a place to recycle the cups currently used, or switching to a different type of cup. Switching to a different type of cup could potentially generate revenue for the University, Levine said.
  • High-Tech: Aaron Nelson, a dual master’s degree student in the Ross School of Business and Japanese Studies, is commercializing Audiallo, a new audio processor that could allow hearing aids and cell phones to work well in noisy environments. Audiallo filters sound in a similar way as the ear does, Nelson said.
  • Health: John Sidhom, a Biomedical Engineering undergraduate student who will graduate in 2011, has designed magnetically-assisted artificial joints that he says reduce the likelihood of revision surgery for severe joint problems. They are low-cost and long-lasting, he said.
  • Global Business: Anne Itsuno, a doctoral student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, proposes a one-stop-shop web service to help prospective graduate students through the application process, which she says can be extremely cumbersome when a dozen or more schools are possibilities.
  • Social Change: Jason Gilbert, who receives his doctorate in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences this month, is building a system that translates sign language into speech and vice versa using cell phone technology. It?s called Mobile Sign Language Systems, or MSignS.

The competition was web-based. Participants videotaped a 3-minute pitch and submitted it online. Most of the pitches came in at impromptu stations MPowered set up for this purpose.

“I think the 1,000 Pitches competition offers hope to both students and the public,” said Ashwin Lalendran, a senior engineering student who is president of MPowered Entrepreneurship. “People say there’s talent leaving the state, but there’s a constant influx of talent coming in. Some of these students are starting companies right here in Ann Arbor.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, admits that he lost some sleep over the 1,000 pitch goal.

“However, this result is a strong statement of the ingenuity of our students and also the hopes and dreams they have,” Zurbuchen said. “I am confident that these students will better our lives in the future.”

Michigan Engineering:

The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. At more than $130 million annually, its engineering research budget is one of largest of any public university. Michigan Engineering is home to 11 academic departments and a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. The college plays a leading role in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and hosts the world class Lurie Nanofabrication Facility. Michigan Engineering’s premier scholarship, international scale and multidisciplinary scope combine to create The Michigan Difference. Find out more at http://www.engin.umich.edu/.
MPowered Entrepreneurship: http://mpowered.web.itd.umich.edu/

Center for Entrepreneurship: http://cfe.engin.umich.edu/

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