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UPenn's BioCellection may hold the key to plastics pollution worldwide

As high school seniors in their hometown of Vancouver, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao had some big questions -- and answers -- for a planet that produces enough plastic every year to circle itself in Saran wrap four times over.

Yao recently graduated from the University of Toronto and Wang is finishing her senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Biology. Together they founded BioCellection. Now their team (which also includes Alexander Simafranca, Eric Friedman and Daniel Chapman) is the first undergraduate team ever to take the $30,000 grand prize at Wharton’s annual Business Plan Competition. And that's only the beginning: They also took home the Wharton Social Impact Prize, the Gloekner Undergraduate Award, the Michelson People’s Choice Award and the Committee Award for Most "Wow Factor." No other single team has ever taken five prizes in the competition.

Wang and Yao began studying riverside soil samples back in high school. They wanted to find out what the ecosystem itself might be doing to survive pollution from plastics. Traditional plastic products are made from fossil fuels, which come from carbon. Humans run on carbon, too -- our source is glucose.

"Could there be bacteria that have evolved with plastic chemicals as their carbon source?" Wang recalls wondering. "The answer is yes…Nature is very much evolving to recover itself. There is a solution in this biology, it just needs to be tapped into. Potentially this could be a large-scale commercial technology used to clean our drinking water."

Wang and Yao focused on how bacteria could be harnessed to break down potentially carcinogenic components of some plastics (like phthalates) that aren’t otherwise biodegradable. Their work won them the 2012 National Commercialization Award at Canada’s Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge and led to a popular 2013 TED talk.

In the labs at Penn, that work grew into BioCellection.

"Instead of tackling derivatives or additives in plastic, we’re [now] tackling the polymer of the plastic itself," explains Wang. "What if we can take this really big problem of the polymer, and try to solve it on a modular basis?"

BioCellection developed a way to engineer bacteria that produce an enzyme which, when combined with problem plastics in a proprietary portable chemical process, can convert that plastic into water and carbon dioxide. This patent-pending technology is still about two years away from the field, but its future application in plastic remediation at landfills, industrial sites, oceans and beaches could be tremendous, with annual revenue projected to reach $100 million by 2020.

A little further down the road in their business model, BioCellection hopes to launch a centralized processing plant that will use this enzyme to convert discarded plastics into a bio-surfactant necessary for textile manufacturing. With the help of collaborator Parley for the Oceans -- which is helping BioCellection connect to brands like Adidas that want to incorporate recycled plastic into their products -- the company hopes to sell this "upcycled" surfactant at $300/kg. It’s an estimated $42 billion market.

The issue of used plastics is a global problem: Because current recycling methods don’t generate enough revenue, over 90 percent of our cast-off plastics (even those going for recycling) end up in landfills, or incinerated, which compounds pollution. 

According to the company, "We can’t expect to change consumer habits overnight or integrate new materials immediately. It’s time to tackle the plastic pollution that currently exists, and that we’re continuing to produce, to save marine wildlife, keep the planet’s food chain intact, and protect human health."

Besides the $54,000 in total prize money from Wharton, BioCellection has earned $90,000 in grants and $240,000 in investment. The company is relocating to the San Jose BioCube in June 2016 for further development.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Miranda Wang, BioCellection 

Bringing virtual reality to medicine at Temple


Gamers, armchair travelers and sci-fi fans are all embracing virtual reality. Now researchers at Temple University are pursuing medical applications for realistic, computer-simulated environments.
 
Dr. Alessandro Napoli, a bio-engineer at Temple, recently spoke at the University City Science Center's Quorum about how this promising technology could aid in weight loss and provide stress reduction during cancer treatment.
 
In 2012, working under the direction of Dr. Antonio Giordano of the Sbarro Health Research Organization, researchers used avatars to teach and demonstrate healthy diet and exercise habits. In settings like home kitchens and supermarkets, the avatars modeled healthy choices. Though the sample was small, participants said the approach helped them change their behavior and resulted in weight loss.
 
The second project studied the use of virtual reality during chemotherapy treatment of breast cancer patients in southern Italy. It is well known that music relieves anxiety for patients receiving chemo. What if, instead, they wore headsets that simulated relaxing 3-D images such as tropical scenes, forests or mountains?
 
The researchers compared music and virtual reality applied for five minutes before, 20 minutes during, and another five minutes following treatment. Measuring several physiological responses including heart rate, the researchers found that virtual reality was as calming as music. The virtual reality patients also reported that they perceived their chemo sessions as much shorter -- a positive outcome.
 
More research is needed, said Napoli, but with minimal training requirements "this is a great tool to introduce to clinical practice."
 
Napoli also presented work on a system to assess balance control and determine fitness to return to active military duty following a head injury. The system is being developed with Dr. Iyad Obeid, a Temple engineering professor, using Microsoft Kinect motion capture technology and basic computer equipment.
 
Balance problems can indicate brain injury. In hospitals, balance is assessed using large, complex and expensive equipment that is unsuitable in the field. The alternative is often a subjective visual assessment.
 
Napoli’s field system can provide visual images of 25 joints and other measures to assess balance with no need for complex equipment or highly trained operators. Over the next few years, the researchers will test the system in actual field conditions using Temple athletes and ROTC students.

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Temple Blackstone Launchpad student wins pitch contest with campus food delivery app


Recent Temple graduate Andrew Nakkache and his business partner, fellow grad Mike Paszkiewicz, got the idea for their winning 2016 College Pitch Philly concept Habitat when they grew frustrated with the student meal plans. The resulting startup is a food-delivery app linking local food trucks and restaurants with campus-dwellers.

The duo -- who both graduated about a month ago -- met on their very first day on campus and soon identified a couple things about student life that weren’t ideal, including the fact that they (or their parents) were wasting money on meal plans with meals that expired weekly.

"Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was an off-campus meal plan?" Nakkache remembers wondering. It was just a concept at that point, but a year-and-a-half later, he and Paszkiewicz launched the initial version of Habitat, a general "student-to-student marketplace."

"It failed big-time," recalls Nakkache. It was "buggy" and they released it in April, shortly before the summer exodus. People were downloading the app, but in one month, they didn’t book a single transaction. There was work to be done.

The partners headed to San Francisco for some mentorship -- one successful entrepreneur assured them that they had a great market, but needed to zero in on a much more targeted service. They realized that there was a huge opportunity in food alone.

Nakkache points to existing meal delivery apps and websites like GrubHub; they realized none of them were focused on the college market. The revamped version of Habitat, launched September 1, 2015, operates with "runners" (exclusively Temple students) delivering food to campus sites within a half-mile or less of participating restaurants and food trucks for a $2.50 in-app delivery fee.

Since launch, Habitat has clocked about 1200 orders, with over 400 in the last month. Nakkache touts a 75 percent success rate with vendors: out of 28 food trucks and restaurants approached by Habitat, 21 came on board.

At the February 24 College Pitch Philly competition, Habitat took top honors, nabbing $7,500 out of a total $15,000 prize pool. (The contest is sponsored by the Philadelphia Regional Entrepreneurship Education Consortium and partners StartUp PHL, Blackstone Foundation, and Quorum at the University City Science Center.) Wins like this -- including a $21,000 boost from the Fox School’s Be Your Own Boss Bowl -- have helped propel the young company, which now has six full-time employees.

Habitat’s latest update speaks to the founders’ original inspiration: a stored-value feature that allows app users (or their parents) to buy tiered plans that include a certain number of pre-paid meals (at $8 each) and some free deliveries.

Next up? Burnish the metrics at Temple and expand to University City. The founders hope the prize money from College Pitch Philly will help bring Habitat to Penn and Drexel by fall 2016.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Andrew Nakkache, Habitat

Promising healthcare technologies win $600K investment from the Science Center


A new way to gather DNA for testing. A better tool for training healthcare workers. Improved physical therapy. An innovative approach to stem cell therapy. These technologies are all under development at regional universities and have been funded by the latest round of the University City Science Center’s QED Proof-of-Concept Program

Launched in 2009, the program provides a boost to novel university-born technologies with market potential, bridging the gap between academic research and commercialization. To date, 28 funded QED projects have attracted over $15 million in follow-on funding and led to seven licensed technologies.

QED goes to the heart of the Center's mission as a nonprofit organization that supports early-stage innovation. In its latest funding round -- the eighth -- QED awarded $600,000 to support researchers at the University of Delaware, Penn State University and Rutgers. The awards are half funded by the Science Center and half by the researchers’ institutions.

The four awardees were selected from a pool of 62 applicants and 12 universities in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Amy Cowperthwait of the University of Delaware is revolutionizing healthcare training by addressing the shortcomings of mannequin simulation. A qualified nurse, Cowperthwait has teamed up with lead engineer Amy Bucha to develop a tool for teaching healthcare workers airway management in emergency situations, improving patient safety and providing feedback from the patient’s perspective.

Dr. Judith Deutsch, professor of rehabilitation and movement science at the Rutgers University School of Health Related Professions, led a team of physical therapists and engineers to create a customized low-cost rehabilitation technology that selectively tracks movement and heart rate. The technology will aid in balance, mobility, coordination and fitness training for older adults as well as persons with neurologic and musculoskeletal conditions such as a stroke.

Dr. Melik Demirel of Penn State is using proteins to coat the surfaces of biomedical swabs, improving DNA capture. These swabs will allow gene analysis from even tiny amounts of blood or other biological samples; the DNA swab industry is the primary market for this product.

Dr. KiBum Lee, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers, is developing an innovative platform for programming human patient-derived stem cells for use in stem-cell therapies. His methods would help people with incurable and debilitating diseases and disorders. Lee's strategy is unlike conventional approaches because it doesn’t rely on the use of viruses to modify the cells' genes.

"The QED program excels at finding innovative, commercially relevant solutions for pressing problems in healthcare and life sciences," notes Science Center President and CEO Stephen S. Tang. "Our latest round looked for innovative approaches to collaboration as it emphasized partnerships between two groups that don’t typically work together: medical professionals and engineers. Putting together these groups’ different skill sets and perspectives -- as exemplified by Amy Cowperthwait’s and Judith Deutsch’s projects -- creates another path to improving patient care. You can expect to see more of these special emphasis areas in the future."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Could Philly's next big healthcare company come out of the Digital Health Accelerator?

Six early-stage healthcare companies comprise the 2016 class at the University City Science Center’s Digital Health Accelerator (DHA). These startups are developing technologies as diverse as enrolling sick pets in clinical trials to providing treatment for chronic wounds without a doctor’s visit.
 
Each startup in the just-announced sophomore cohort will receive up to $50,000 in funding, professional mentorship, and networking opportunities with key healthcare stakeholders including insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and research institutions. They’ll also receive a 12-month membership at the Innovation Center @3401 -- a partnership between the Science Center and Drexel University in collaboration with Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Safeguard Scientifics
 
The 2016 DHA companies are:

Grand Round Table
The company's product emails primary care providers a daily summary of their scheduled patient follow-ups so they can better manage high-risk patients, keeping them out of the hospital.

Graphwear Technologies
This startup has developed the first graphene patch to measure dehydration, glucose and lactic acid levels, all from your sweat.

InvisAlert Solutions
The company uses a wearable device to help care providers monitor patients in institutional settings, improving compliance.

Oncora Medical
This enterprise has a tool for planning personalized cancer radiotherapy, reducing the incidence of toxic radiation side effects in patients and improving cancer center efficiency.

One Health Company
This startup helps to enroll ill pets in trials of cutting-edge therapies, improving their wellness and encouraging the development of new therapies for human medicine.

Tissue Analytics
This company transforms the smartphone into a platform for evaluating and measuring things like chronic wounds, burns and skin conditions. 
 
The 2016 class was selected from a pool of 69 applicants via a multi-stage process that emphasized the inclusion of women and minority entrepreneurs. The DHA employs a selection panel of industry and investor professionals -- including a number from outside the region -- to review applications and make recommendations.
 
As it turned out, all of the selected companies have some connection to the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel. Four of them -- Grand Round Table, GraphWear Technologies, Oncora Medical and Tissue Analytics -- are graduates of DreamIt, also located at the Innovation Center. Of the six companies in the second DHA class, three are women or minority-owned.
 
The Science Center launched the DHA in 2014; seven companies from the inaugural class have since gone from prototype to commercialization, creating 68 new jobs, generating over $1 million in revenue and raising almost $9 million in follow-on investment.
 
Funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration Growth Accelerator Fund enabled the second class of the DHA to continue to focus on minority and women-led businesses. The DHA also received support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Philly's top women business leaders tell their stories

What do Philly's women business executives have to say about their career journeys? To answer that question, the nationally operating CPA firm Citrin Cooperman hosted an inaugural "Women at the Wheel" forum at the Union League of Philadelphia. The January 21 event featured four of the city's most notable business leaders telling their stories and taking questions from the crowd.

Julie Coker Graham, a former Hyatt Regency Philadelphia general manager, is the new president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. Suzanne S. Mayes, a 2012 Alice Paul Equality Award winner and leader at several women’s initiative organizations, is the chair of the public and project finance group at Cozen O’Connor. They were joined by Cheltenham native JoAnne Epps -- currently dean of Temple’s Beasley School of Law, she was appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter to chair the new Police Department Oversight Board and earned the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award. Catherine M. Cahill completed the panel. Originally a musician, she has had a distinguished career in arts administration and been the president and CEO of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts since 2008.

Citrin Cooperman partners Mary Brislin and Colleen S. Vallen moderated the panel.

In her opening remarks, Vallen noted that only about thirteen percent of U.S. business board and executive positions are held by women (though in local healthcare and higher education sectors, that number has topped twenty percent).

Graham touted her lifelong "passion for hospitality." Just a few decades ago it was virtually unheard of for a woman -- especially an African-American woman -- to pursue a four-year degree in hospitality management.

"The culinary scene here is just exploding," she said of moving Philadelphia in 2007.

Mayes spoke about her formative years at an all-girls high school where a you-can-do-anything attitude wasn’t aspirational or visionary, "it was a fact," with women leaders on sports teams and in school clubs. She took this attitude with her to college, where she remembers a "five-minute meeting" with her male undergraduate advisor -- she wanted to discuss her grad school options. He told her to focus on finishing college, not going to business or law school.

"Happily, I didn’t listen to him," she recalled, earning her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

"It didn’t occur to me that African-American women could run anything," said Epps of her school days; she thought becoming a legal secretary would be the apex of her career. She remembers her own mother, whose school counselor "laughed until he cried" when she said she was interested in medical school and put her on a secretarial track instead. Epps herself went on to attend Trinity College just after it became co-ed and was greeted on her first day with signs that read, "Co-eds go home, we hate you!"

But her years there were successful, leading to a prominent legal career.

"Be vigilant as to what is happening to us, and be vigilant as to what is happening to others," she advised attendees on improving gender parity in the workforce.

Cahill, a Temple undergraduate and Drexel graduate alum, has managed major music institutions such as Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, the Dallas Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Toronto Symphony before landing in Philly. She touted a recent "sea change" in the world of leadership for women.

The panel took several audience questions, including one about coping with "imposter syndrome" in high-powered jobs.

"It’s about recognizing the moment of self-doubt," said Mayes. "What do you do about it?" There’s no such thing as a work-life or mom-career balance, she continued. Instead, it’s about "integration" with the right personal and professional support.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Citrin Cooperman Women at the Wheel speakers

 

Sixth annual State of University City celebrates 75,000 new jobs

On November 18, University City District (UCD) hosted its sixth annual State of University City event at World Café Live. The headline of the night was the 75,000 jobs created within this 2.4-square-mile neighborhood, home to some of Philly’s premier education, healthcare and science institutions. According to UCD, the area is on track to add an additional 1,000 jobs in 2016.

Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania and UCD’s board chair, noted that this density of jobs is among the highest of any neighborhood in the country. Speaking at World Café Live, he cited the impact of startup hubs like the Enterprise Center and Drexel’s [email protected], which now hosts 50 technology entrepreneurs from 30 member companies.

Carnaroli also noted the groundbreaking work of companies like Spark Therapeutics, which will soon seek FDA approval for its gene therapy; studies indicate they can achieve restored vision in people blinded by certain retinal diseases. Another University City breakthrough made national news this year when eight-year-old Zion Harvey received the world’s first pediatric double hand transplant from Penn Medicine.

Carnaroli touted "the power of community and institutions coming together in partnerships to produce results."

UCD Executive Director Matt Bergheiser spoke about why 75,000 jobs is a "magic number" for the area. Businesses and institutions are "feeling the growth of the regional economy" with a substantial spike in well-paid jobs, he insisted. According to UCD, between 2008 and 2013, the neighborhood saw a 79 percent increase in middle to high-wage jobs -- wage growth far above the city’s overall average. It’s exciting news, especially paired with a ten percent jump in University City’s population since 2013 and expansions in the restaurant, hospitality, retail and real estate sectors.

Another way to look at the job density in University City, Bergheiser pointed out, is to count 30,000 jobs per square mile. He also emphasized some essential ingredients in the neighborhood's success: entrepreneurial, civic and "opportunity" infrastructure. 

Because innovation needs places for people to come together, entrepreneurial infrastructure flourishes at cutting-edge hubs like the Science Center and Wexford Science + Technology.

Civic infrastructure -- which Bergheiser called "splendor at the ground level" -- includes elements such as new parklets, the Porch at 30th Street, a revamped Market Street Bridge and the upcoming $2.1 million transformation of the 40th Street SEPTA portal, slated to open in 2017.

"Opportunity infrastructure" is paying attention to an equity of opportunities, or "how we connect the talent in our West Philadelphia neighborhood" to meaningful jobs, he explained.

That led naturally to talk of UCD's West Philadelphia Skills Initiative -- many participants are low-income residents who struggle with longterm unemployment or a criminal record that prevents them from getting a foot in the door with job applications. Bergheiser said that 91 percent of Skills Initiative graduates succeed in landing a job, with an average starting wage of $13.60 per hour.

It all adds up to "a new first and lasting impression" for our metropolis, he concluded.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: University City District

Exciting new partnerships will boost Philadelphia's startup scene

The startup stars are aligning in University City, where a quartet of major players has announced several new partnerships aimed at boosting the burgeoning community of entrepreneurs.
 
First up, Drexel University and Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania are teaming up to create the Drexel Ventures Ben Franklin Seed Fund, a $10 million early-stage seed fund that will support spin-off companies from the university. The fund will initially invest in enterprises that have licensed technologies from the university and have already taken advantage of Drexel's extensive commercialization programs. Its candidate pool will eventually be expanded to include startups founded by alumni and students. 
 
Concurrent with the launch of the new fund, Ben Franklin will join Drexel and the University City Science Center’s efforts to strengthen the offerings at Innovation Center @3401 ([email protected]). Ben Franklin will establish a physical presence at the collaborative workspace on Market Street, providing member companies a variety of services and support including industry consulting, market analysis and access to capital.
 
At the same time, Safeguard Scientifics is joining [email protected] as its first "sustaining member." The Radnor-based private equity and venture capital firm specializes in healthcare and technology companies, and will help to recruit and mentor member companies while bringing in new industry collaborators, providing critical resources and offering perspectives on the evolving economic landscape.  
 
"Together the Science Center and Drexel have built a strong foundation for startups at [email protected]," explains Science Center President and CEO Stephen S. Tang. "Adding Ben Franklin to the partnership and Safeguard Scientifics as a sustaining member strengthens the ecosystem that is in place at [email protected] and allows us to draw on our collective assets and expertise to attract and support a critical mass of high-growth startups and a diverse set of members."
  
Drexel President John A. Fry is also excited about the partnerships.

"Teaming with a visionary organization like Ben Franklin, a group with a proven track record of fueling Philadelphia’s innovation economy, will not only empower our entrepreneurs, but also attract others to University City and serve as a model for the type of partnerships that will form the foundation of the Innovation Neighborhood," he enthuses.
 
Source: University City Science Center
Writer: Elise Vider

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Wharton study finds that socially conscious investing can also be profitable

Do people investing money in companies geared for social or environmental good have to give up the prospect of market-rate returns in exchange for working towards a better world?

No. At least according to the first systematic academic research to address the young but extremely broad field of "impact investing," the Wharton Social Impact Initiative's (WSII) new report, "Great Expectations: Mission Preservation and Financial Performance in Impact Investments." In some arenas, socially or environmentally conscious investors can see their returns hit market-rate performance.

"It’s difficult to talk about the report because there is so much nuance in it," explains co-author Harry Douglas, a full-time impact investing associate at WSII, who continues to follow the data of this growing field. However, he hopes that the findings will be accessible enough to spread the message that, contrary to longtime perceptions, impact investing doesn’t "necessitate a concessionary return."

What does that mean?

Investors who choose to put their private equity dollars into companies with missions like micro-finance, healthcare in low-income regions, education technology or green energy don’t have to accept smaller returns than folks who put their money into more traditional profit-driven avenues.

The study tracked the performance of 53 impact investing private equity funds that represent 557 individual investments, and debunks the widespread assumption that lower investment returns are inevitable when investing in socially focused funds.

How do we define impact investing? According to the Global Impact Investing Network, the receiving company’s intentionality of impact (meaning their bedrock commitment to the good outcomes they espouse), the measurable impact the company makes, and the expectation of a financial return.

So since impact investing is such a broad field, with many investors valuing a specific social interest over maximized profits, how did WSII identify a stable of funds to follow? WSII asked participating fund managers to self-identify in one of three categories: those seeking to simply preserve the capital invested, those seeking below-market-rate returns, and those pursuing market-rate returns.

"Our report doesn’t make any type of value judgements about what’s appropriate there, because there’s important work to be done in each of those three segments of the financial expectation," says Douglas. But this study focused only on the latter group of investors: those whose fund managers were seeking market-rate returns.

They did this because they wanted to get the best understanding possible of what the industry’s going to look like over the next couple of years, given the typical five-to-seven-year life cycle of a private equity investment. Funds launched around 2010 are nearing the time that fund managers will exit the companies involved. So there are the questions of whether those investments will prove profitable, whether the companies' missions continue after the exit, or if fund managers seeking higher returns abandon the ideals when mission protections aren’t built into the language of exit agreements.

"We focus on this market-rate seeking segment because we felt the tension would be greatest in this group," explains Douglas. "They would be trying to balance these competitive market-rate returns with preserving portfolio company mission."

This research is just the beginning.

"We’re really hoping to grow this sample size, so we can make more definitive statements about the industry," adds Douglas. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Harry Douglas, Wharton Social Impact Initiative 

Penn lab promises a new frontier in cardiac repair

For patients who suffer heart attacks, the resulting damage to the organ can eventually lead to heart failure. Now a University of Pennsylvania lab is investigating the use of injectable biomaterials that show promise as a new frontier in cardiac repair.
 
Speaking at the University City Science Center’s Quorum, Dr. Jason Burdick, a Penn bioengineering professor, described how "hydrogels" have delivered promising results that "might be the difference between going on to heart failure or not." (Bioengineering encompasses concepts from biology and engineering; many areas of the field focus on biomedical applications.) 
 
The Burdick Polymeric Biomaterials Lab at Penn was established 10 years ago and immediately began work on hydrogels. The study of cardiac repair began around seven years ago. The aim is to create substances that go directly into the heart tissue to preserve the heart wall thickness and the overall shape of the heart, frequently damaged by heart attack or "myocardial infarction."
 
"Injectability is an interesting engineering problem," explains Burdick. The challenge is to get the gelatinous gloop to flow through syringes and catheters, solidify and stay stable in the heart tissue.
 
Burdick and his team are making progress using a class of hydrogels based on the molecule hyaluronic acid, already widely used in cosmetic and musculoskeletal procedures. A few small clinical studies are already underway.
 
"The next step is really defining the right formulation that we are interested in pursuing, so that we can finalize pre-clinical large animal trials," he says. "This involves selection of the appropriate method for delivery of the hydrogels to the heart. Hopefully we will move towards a Phase I clinical trial in just a few years."
 
Burdick is careful to credit clinical collaborators at Penn and other schools, notably Robert Gorman, a Penn professor of cardiovascular surgery. The two have founded a startup called Myostratum that is focused on the translation of hydrogel therapies.
 
"I believe this is an exciting area that has a lot of potential to develop new therapies for patients that have myocardial infarction," adds Burdick. "Many people are affected by heart disease and the development of therapies that can improve clinical outcomes is very important."
 
Source: Dr. Jason Burdick, Department of Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania
Writer: Elise Vider

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Dear Startups, the Digital Health Accelerator wants you!

The University City Science Center  is now accepting applications for the sophomore class of its Digital Health Accelerator (DHA), a program that helps launch companies in the digital health or health IT sectors.

Need convincing? Consider UE Lifesciences, one of the startups in the inaugural DHA class that wrapped in July. UELS recently announced that it has raised $3 million in venture capital to commercialize its handheld breast health examination tool.

iBreastExam, a painless and radiation-free device, can be easily operated by nurses and social workers to provide standardized breast exams with instant results at the point of care. The product uses patented ceramic sensors invented at Drexel University to detect subtle variations in the stiffness of breast tissue that can point to tumors.

The implications for women in the developing world are enormous. Survival rates for women in the U.S. diagnosed with breast cancer are 80 to 90 percent compared to less than 50 percent for women in the developing world.

"iBreastExam may provide a fighting chance for them by enabling early detection on a large scale," explains Dr. Ari Brooks, director of the Integrated Breast Center at Pennsylvania Hospital.

According to the Science Center, UELS and the six other companies in the first DHA class went from prototype to commercialization, created 53 new jobs, generated $600,000 in sales and raised almost $4 million in follow-on investment.

For the next class, they're is looking for companies ready to establish operations in Greater Philadelphia with a product or concept ready to be sold -- or that will be ready with DHA support -- on the U.S. healthcare market. The six companies will each receive up to $50,000, office space at the Science Center, professional mentorship, access to investors and introductions to appropriate decision makers in their target markets.

The program will run for one year beginning in February 2016. Applications are due October 26.

Source: University City Science Center and UE Lifesciences
Writer: Elise Vider

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Keeping Up with the University City Science Center

It should come as no surprise to readers of Flying Kite that a lot of innovation – and news of innovation – comes from the University City Science Center
 
Now Flying Kite and the Science Center have embarked on a new partnership, a way to keep up with the amazing output generated by this dynamic hub for innovation, entrepreneurship and technology commercialization.
 
For the next year as "Writer in Residence," I’ll be filing regular dispatches, offering an in-depth look at the West Philly institution's scientists, entrepreneurs, startups, and established companies, along with the work it does to move technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.
 
Founded in 1963, the Science Center is the oldest and largest urban research park in the United States. In service of its goal -- "to inspire a community of knowledge, spark the spirit of enterprise, and help expand and strengthen the Philadelphia’s region’s technology sector" – the campus offers an array of services including lab and office space, business incubation, support services and programming for entrepreneurs.
 
A few numbers reflect the magnitude of the Science Center’s impact on the region:
  • The Science Center has 17 buildings – and is fast growing – at its 17-acre West Philadelphia campus.
  • 8,000 people come to work at the Science Center every day.
  • More than 350 companies have "graduated" since 1963.
  • 93 graduate companies located in Greater Philadelphia employ 15,000 people.
  • Graduate and current incubator companies generate $9.4 billion in annual regional economic impact.
  • The Science Center’s 31 nonprofit shareholders include many of the region’s leading colleges, universities, hospitals and research institutions.
Over the next year, Flying Kite will report on many aspects of the Science Center’s programs and resources. For now, a quick primer:
  • The Port Business Incubators flexibly accommodate the changing needs of emerging, fast-growth life sciences, physical sciences and digital technology companies. The Global Soft Landing Program fosters international business in the U.S. by helping global companies establish a foothold in local life sciences and IT markets. The Digital Health Accelerator (DHA) supports early-stage digital health companies with funding, office space, professional mentorship and introductions to key stakeholders in the region.
     
  • The QED Proof-of-Concept Program supports proof-of-concept work in early-stage life science and health technologies with commercial potential. 
     
  • Quorum unites the region’s entrepreneurial and innovation communities through a central gathering space on the Science Center campus.
     
  • FirstHand adds art to the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) to create project-based STEAM programs and workshops that empower individuals and convene communities around creative applications of technology.
     
  • The Innovation Center @3401 is a flexible workspace for startups.
     
  • Blackstone LaunchPad Philadelphia supports student entrepreneurship in the Greater Philadelphia region through a partnership between Philadelphia University, Temple University and the Science Center. 
So watch this space and stay abreast as the Science Center takes Philadelphia innovators "from idea to IPO."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Scientist of the Year nominee grapples with rehab robots at GRASP

Dr. Michelle Johnson isn’t a Philadelphia native – she’s been heading up the new Rehabilitation Robotics Lab out of University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP (general robotics, automation, sensing & perception) laboratory for only about two years – so when she heard she’d been nominated for Scientist of the Year in the Philadelphia Geek Awards, she didn’t know what to think.

"Since I’m new to Philadelphia, I didn’t know what it meant," she explains. "I’m like, 'What? Is that a good thing?'"

In Philadelphia, also known as the "eds and meds" capital of the U.S., it definitely is. But in the truest geek fashion, Johnson wasn’t even able to make it to the August 15 ceremony at the Academy of Natural Sciences. She spoke to Flying Kite about her recent work from Singapore, where she and her Penn team were presenting at the International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics, before jaunting to Botswana for some more research.

The Jamaican-born Johnson grew up in New York and received her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford with an emphasis in robotics, design and mechatronics. (Don’t know what mechatronics is? It’s a combination of mechanical engineering, computing and electronics to help us discover and develop new manufacturing techniques.)

In 2013, Johnson moved her lab from its original location in the medical college of Wisconsin’s Marquette University to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, taking up a faculty position at Penn.

Johnson acknowledges that her focus -- robots that assist in rehabilitation and treatment for people dealing with things such as spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other problems -- is a very narrow slice of a rapidly expanding field, one that has been around only for the last 25 years or so.

Engineers like Johnson and her team at Penn work closely with neuroscientists. Neuroplasticity is the name of the game: the brain’s ability to re-wire and reroute itself after an injury. It's crucial in fields such as prosthetics -- where patients’ brains learn to interact with robotic devices that restore the body’s function -- or to bolster limbs weakened from conditions like MS.

With cutting-edge technologies like EEGs and functional MRIs revealing our neurons’ "structural connectivity," they're working not just to understand the normal brain, but also to piece together what happens when the brain becomes damaged, and develop technology to pair with our bodies in ways that were unimaginable a few decades ago.

Things like Ekso Bionics, which help people with spinal cord injuries to walk again, get a lot of press, but Johnson also points to work like functional electrical stimulation and implanted electrodes as recent major advances in rehab, along with rehabilitative robotic devices that enable injured patients to continue crucial exercise regimens at home for a much longer time than is feasible in hospital settings. Wearable sensors, especially those invisibly embedded in textiles (with myriad applications for remote monitoring of patients), are also part of the next big wave of medical robotics, even if it’s not widely commercialized yet.

Though proud of her recent nomination, Johnson stresses that science is a team sport.

"Oftentimes when you get the accolade, you forget all the students and the support staff that really are critical to this process," she insists. "I want to really make clear that nothing can happen without that team…I want to congratulate my team for working hard and doing good research."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Michelle Johnson, Ph.D., Rehabilitation Robotics Lab at Penn

Wharton award-winners simplify renters insurance for the millennial market

Zack Stiefler and Tom Austin will receive their MBAs from Wharton this month, and their prospects just got a lot sweeter thanks to a $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize award in the 2015 Wharton Business Plan Competition.

Stiefler, who was born in Philadelphia but grew up in San Diego, and Austin, a Maine native, began working on their company, Bungalow Insurance, about a year ago.

The 28-year-olds both studied economics at Duke University as undergrads (Stiefler graduated in '09; Austin in '08), but didn’t connect personally until the summer of 2013, when they met in California, and later played together on Wharton’s hockey team.

The inspiration for their new online insurance-buying platform hit when they moved to Philly for school, and had to grapple with buying renters insurance for the first time.

"We really decided to start Bungalow because as consumers, we were frustrated with the experience of buying insurance," recalls Stiefler.

The two already have a lot to say about the insurance industry. First off, most insurance companies are much older -- some have been around for a century or more -- than major companies in other sectors. It’s a tough arena for entrepreneurs to break into. Plus, there's the feeling and experience, both for consumers and venture capitalists, that insurance is a complex, unglamorous field.

"Consumers have grown used to the fact that insurance is a complicated thing, and the industry has really benefited in a large way from that perception," says Austin. "Insurance doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems right now. The products are actually relatively straightforward."

Factor in many insurance companies' reluctance to join the online marketplace in a user-friendly way and you have the perfect opportunity for a new business niche. They note that when it comes to customer satisfaction with online service, only cable companies rank below insurance companies.

Bungalow is launching with a focus on renters insurance rather than a more conventional product such as homeowners or car insurance partly because of their own experience with the needs of renters. Stiefler points to a major demographic shift: People under 35 are twice as likely to rent versus own their homes, and 55 percent of them don’t own cars.

"There are 30 million millennials out there who don’t need auto, they don’t need homeowners, they just need renters [insurance]," he explains.

The industry has failed to effectively grasp this need or create the kind of online shopping experience this generation prefers.

"We thought not only could we build a great experience, we could also really deliver a product that people aren’t selling right now that customers really need," adds Stiefler.

The Bungalow platform (which will be headquartered in Philly but also operate in New York) and its industry partners will aim to simplify things both for buyers and providers, and the Wharton prize will help boost the company's growth.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Zack Stiefler and Tom Austin, Bungalow Insurance

 

Penn's ThirdEye uses technology to help the visually impaired navigate the world

Being chosen to present at this year's Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals was a surprise to at least one of the eight teams participating in the April 30 event: The founders of ThirdEye are not even Wharton students (yet) -- they’re freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania. But their technology, an app joined with a wearable Google Glass-type device, has major potential for helping those with visual impairments live more independent lives.
 
ThirdEye co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Rajat Bhageria (author of What High School Didn’t Teach Me) isn’t wasting any time in the quest to build world-changing technology. He teamed up with Ben Sandler (ThirdEye founding head engineer and a computer and cognitive science major), Philippines native David Ongchoco (founding head marketer and media maven), and founding engineer Joe Cappadona (an "athlete, musician, and computer programmer") to develop the technology and business plan almost as soon as they arrived at Penn.
 
"I want to leave a dent in the universe by creating things that people want," explains Bhageria, a Cincinnati native and computer science engineering major. "We believe in empowering visually impaired individuals."

There are a lot of people who could use their technology -- there are about 300 million visually impaired people in the world; they generate over $41 billion in spending on assistive technologies annually.
 
The ThirdEye glasses and app work by verbally identifying common objects for wearers who can pick them up, but can’t see them. For example, its camera and voice can tell blind people what denomination of money they’re handed or what kind of pill bottle or household item they’re holding. (Check out the ThirdEye website for a video demo.)

Other uses include identifying street signs and even being able to read books, menus and newspapers. Bhageria says future updates could incorporate facial recognition software, language translation for travelers, and recognition of individual medications and foods.

They’re already partnering with the National Federation of the Blind to bring the product to market.

Though the young men aren’t enrolled in grad school yet, "we have been leveraging every opportunity at Wharton we can get our hands on," enthuses Bhageria. The team talks to professors weekly, joined Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program startup incubator, participates in Wharton events and competitions, and takes Wharton classes.
 
All that learning and networking -- and the intense time put into current competition -- is already paying off. The company began building their product last September and are already in beta testing with visually impaired individuals. They’re heading for a clinical study this summer with up to 20 participants, with a national beta launch in view for later in the year.
 
As for the April 30 pitch-fest itself, initially the team "had no expectation of doing well considering that most of the participants -- MBA students -- have years of industry experience over us," says Bhageria, but their confidence has been growing.
 
"Now we’re not just in it for the experience," he insists. "We’re in it to win it."

There’s $128,500 in cash and in-kind awards at stake, including the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize. That would be a great boost to the team as they head into clinical trials, and "could be fundamental in opening doors for insurance to cover our product."
 
The Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals featuring 20-minute presentations from the "Great Eight" finalists is happening 1 - 6 p.m. Thursday, April 30 at the Wharton School.
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Rajat Bhageria, Third Eye
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