The MIT Whiteboard Challenge
Think of it as the white-knuckle challenge for entrepreneurs. Bare bones, no props, no slides. Just you alone, your idea, five minutes and a whiteboard.
Are you in mid-sentence when the clock expires? Tough. “TIME!” calls the moderator. And you just shut your mouth and take a seat. More than one finalist got caught saying, “The most important thing is—” only to have the sentence lopped off by an abrupt, “Time’s up! Next presentation!”
That’s right—just five minutes to get your message across to a huge roomful of Angel and VC investors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and probably
the highest concentration of PhDs of any investor gathering. MIT alumni. Luminaries from top schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago. The venue itself—the IBM Innovation Center—can prove overwhelming and daunting.
Truth-be-told, I love it. I love everything about it. The people running this event work long, hard hours and are actually very polite and friendly. But they’re drop-dead professional. It’s a highly competitive environment and they set an ultra-high standard of fairness. Even the criterion is transparent: They’re looking for quality of presentation, use of the white board, a clear problem, a clear, realistic, and unique solution.
The Chicago chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum consistently puts on top quality events. They keep a lot of talent busy behind the scenes to do just that. As usual, Nancy Munro runs a tight ship. Twenty preliminary judges already narrowed the field to ten finalists. For each of those presenting here, nine worthy companies didn’t make the cut.
And this is by far the best Whiteboard Challenge in five years. I feel privileged to sit beside a distinguished panel of judges headed by Dr. Moises Goldman. Audience voting by mobile phone will augment the assessment of his panel. Ted Wallhaus, chairman of the global board, is here tonight and kicks things off. As I switch on my recorder and prepare to take notes, I feel the chill of excitement in this room. Tonight I’ll see the best of the best. I actually know two of these outstanding people. How will they do under this kind of pressure?
The evening starts with the introduction of winners from previous years that have established themselves as viable companies. Then for tonight’s entries: This is a super-strong group of entrepreneurs. Every one of them brings to the table a unique business idea with a compelling social need. There’s money lying on the floor for any one of these companies.
“The CDC and the WHO say the number-one way to prevent infection is hand washing. But compliance in hospitals is only 40%. That’s right—the staff washes their hands less than half as many times as required.”
Yuri Malina and his partner Mert Iseri studied hospitals in an 8-week marathon and came up with some startling insights. Sinks and the wall-mounted gel bottles are fixed in place—never where you need them. Staff needs to sanitize their hands 4-5 times during a patient visit but did you ever see a doctor or nurse do that? No, the typical behavior is to wipe hands on pants. That’s known to spread disease but it’s a habit ingrained in us over a lifetime. So hand washing is a problem—both practical and behavioral.
Hospitals are so serious about this issue that they want tracking of hand washing. Some have been using tattletale schemes, asking nurses to observe their peers and write up infractions. What’s the result of that? An annual report that nobody reads and a stressful work environment.
The Solution— Yuri believes we can get to the point where there is no such thing as a hospital acquired infection. SwipeSense provides a portable gel dispenser that is worn on the belt—readily available to the caregiver. A natural swiping motion, much like wiping hands on pants, dispenses a measured dose of sanitizing gel. The unit collects and processes feedback using a simple wireless network. That enables hospitals to deploy goal setting and incentives to drive behavioral change. “The result is a straightforward solution to a simple problem.”
The Inside Story—Yuri Malina and Mert Iseri first earned national stature while still in school, by co-founding Design for America, now with chapters in major universities across the country. As that organization takes root, they will step into board-level roles.
I first met these two at the Levy Mastermind Group when they arrived on their longboards—laid back but sharp and wildly passionate. These guys love the game—every part of it. They wowed everybody there. Their enthusiasm was so high, I became convinced that these two can make any project work. More on that subject in the article, Six Reasons Why Tech Belongs to the Young.
I visited Mert and Yuri at their Northwestern digs and found that they take full advantage of University facilities. PhD level advisors. Free prototyping—a huge competitive advantage. Then they collaborate with hospitals in pilot projects that test the prototypes and uncover new needs.
Because they went through the first generation of the Healthbox incubator, a staff of distinguished professionals has a stake in their financial success. Their device has gone through several iterations. Now, with a mature product, SwipeSense has signed six beta customers.
Just a short time ago this pair of young entrepreneurs had already raised $500K in investment dollars to fund further research. Then they went on an east coast tour and boosted that to $750K. No doubt these guys will meet their $1M goal—no doubt whatsoever. Yuri’s presentation captured everybody at the MIT Whiteboard Challenge. Tonight they walk away with the $3,000 first prize—another in a long list of accolades.
Yuri is an inventor, artist, and adventurer. This was the best presentation I’ve seen from him—the best I’ve seen from most anybody. When awarded first place, his partner’s loud call was heard over the cheers of the audience. “You’re awesome, Yuri!” How can anybody compete with that kind of energy? Keep hitting it out of the part, you guys. We’re all rooting for you.
CerViva—Solomon Arman Nabatiyan, PhD – Cervia Diagnostic Innovations
A cancer biologist trained at Oxford and Camridge, he’s affectionately known as Dr. Sal at Northwestern University where he serves as a research professor. He co-founded the crowdfunding site, TechMoola.com for raising funds through non-traditional sources as well as CerviaDX.
The Problem—The #1 killer of women worldwide is not breast cancer—it’s cervical cancer—a disease that is 100% preventable. A woman dies from cervical cancer every two minutes. $5.8M is spent each hour on screening using the Pap-smear test.
The Pap test is 90 years old. It’s expensive, takes 7 days to process, and requires high-priced equipment and skilled technicians to perform. After all of that, it’s about as accurate as flipping a coin. Scraping to obtain a sample causes discomfort in patients. The result? Only 25% of women have access to the test and overall efficacy is only 13% prevention—that for a disease that is 100% preventable.
The Solution—CerViva is a test that is 95% accurate, using molecular markers to produce results not subject to human error. It costs only
$5 per patient, takes only 30 minutes to process, uses cheap disposable equipment, and requires no skilled technicians. Rather than scraping, the experience is similar to a 3M Post-It Note picking up dust. The result? According to projections, 95% global access, and 95% prevention.
Dr. Sal raises laughter from the audience when he points out with a smile that a university professor gives 13% an F and 95% an A. “We all have important women in our lives,” he says, “and we need to support them and keep them cancer-free.”
The Inside Story– I talked to him at length after the meeting. He knows entrepreneurship and coaches it at Northwestern. He mentored Mert and Yuri of SwipeSense. The guy’s the complete package. Can you imagine the social implications of his discovery? The dollar value? This is the kind of stuff is the reason I try never to miss an MITEF event—especially the White Board Challenge.
Dr. Sal was interviewed by TechCocktail after being in the Chicago Startup Spotlight event at TechWeek. He described his social motivation: He hopes to plow profits into worldwide access to life-saving technology—especially in the developing world. “Cervical cancer has to disappear and we won’t take no for an answer! We already have the technology. We just need to do the work.”
The Problem—What happens when your day isn’t over but your smartphone’s day is? Samir shows a familiar icon that he calls the red battery
of death and gets a lot of laughter. He’s got my attention. To take notes before my battery dies, I’m running my laptop at 10% power with the screen dim.
He goes on to explain how a battery works off a cathode and an anode. “There’s been a terrific amount of innovation in cathode technology but the anode has remained fundamentally unchanged over the past 20 years.”
The smartphone market is huge and growing at 35% per year. Same story for tablets and other devices.
The Solution – Here’s what SiNode can do:
Capacity – Batteries can store more energy. 8 hours of talk time goes to 25 hours—a 3x improvement.
Charging – 95 minutes of charging time becomes 10 minutes—a 10x improvement.
Scalablility – The battery uses simple chemistry so it’s easy to manufacture.
The technology is published with two patents pending. He will supply the Army, the Navy, the CIA, and Homeland Security. Those
organizations are willing to pay a significant premium for these batteries. Using that revenue, SiNode will bootstrap into the device space—phones, tablets, computers, and all forms of electronics. The long-term plan calls for forming partnerships with large battery manufacturers. Eventually he expects to move into electric cars.
It’s a strong team that includes the inventor. I like the business plan—a minimum of outside investment and immediate cash flow. I looked for more on the internet and discovered that SiNode has already won a number of accolades:
The Clean Energy Challenge 2012 – Finalist
First Look West Clean Energy Challenge 2012 – Finalist
Kellogg Shark Tank – 1st Place
CleanTech Open 2012 – Advanced to semi-final round
And now—The MIT Whiteboard Challenge – 3rd Place
Hey, I can’t wait to get me one o’ them super batteries. How about you?
The Rest of the Field
Givby— Bill Scheurer—”Philanthropy for the Rest of Us” Here’s an exciting idea —something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that revs you up before, during, and after. Giving is a buzz, and it can be just a click away. Raising large sums by many tiny donations, Givby makes micro-philanthropy easy and affordable. By combining with social networks, it makes giving fun as you crowdsource your friends onboard. And you pick the charity. The trick is to keep the gift amounts secret rather than trying to drive competition, which only discourages people from participating. This guy spent 20 years in fund-raising with 10 years in non-profits. He seems to have a new insight on the matter. I talked to him afterwards and learned that he’s bootstrapping the project and yet it’s already live. Development is moving at a rapid pace. Keep your eyes open for this one.
Green Tech—Prasad S. Kodulkula PhD, PMP, PgMP, Professor at Northwestern University has found a way to produce Green Energy from Greenhouse Gases. He converts air pollution into clean energy to drive our cars and fly our planes. His goal is to recycle pollution the same way we recycle water. To do that he uses CO2 to grow algae then makes biofuel out of that. Algae is already a proven source for biofuel but this new method makes it 5-10 times cheaper to produce than existing pond or light-based solutions. One patent has issued and one is pending. I close my eyes and imagine a coal-fired plant with no stack—directly feeding one of these units. Could that happen? Could we re-open all the Midwest coal mines and put all those small towns back to work? Could we again make steel in Gary Indiana, yet keep the air clear?
NoRedInk—Jeff Scheur—Virtual tutoring—This is a web-based solution to teaching grammar using kid’s personal interests. 14,500 teachers and students have already used the site and he hasn’t yet resorted to paid advertising. Kids have dedicated 8700 hours working on it since last Feb. A passionate member of the audience told me that schools are crying out for this technology. Millions of education dollars are going unused for lack of a working system. Schools can’t find enough tutors to fill the gap.
Virtual Field Trips—TJ Pavlov— This is a way to enable schools to take interactive field trips via the internet. The distinctive here is
the word, “interactive.” Students can converse with people on location. If the business model doesn’t stick, he plans to use the system in his own classroom.
Intelligent GRE Tutor—Jonathan McBride—This is an intelligent tutoring system for the GRE exam using artificial intelligence and learning sciences. It finds out what a student knows and teaches to the need. It maintains a balance between difficulty and skill with enough repetition to make it stick. The military is already using this kind of technology. It should be ready for market within 6 months. After the event, I heard members of the audience suggesting many more opportunities for this technology.
Turning Chicken Feathers into Playground Equipment—Neil Kane—This is a bioplastic application with a hilarious name—perhaps to help people remember. With a patented method licensed through Northwestern University, he proposes to make plastic using chicken feathers—a waste product. The result? Petroleum use is reduced by 40%. A stronger plastic is produced.
Clean Water Forever—Len Bland—Water is a $360B market. Wastewater plants use 4% of our electricity and produce sludge. Now they can supercharge the process using natural bacteria to eat up 80% of the sludge and reduce electricity use by 90%. Their IP includes 70 worldwide patents. I know Len as a highly competent businessman. He’s still going through his due diligence process, but if everything’s in order, this could be huge.
SwipeSense—Yuri Malina— http://swipesense.com
Yuri is co-founder of Design for America— http://designforamerica.com
Yuri’s Blog— www.yurimalina.com/yuri—blog.html
CerViva— Solomon Arman Nabatiyan— www.mycervicaltest.com
SiNode— Samir Mayekar— www.facebook.com/NUSiNode/info
Find Chicago Venture Magazine at www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.
Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved