Penn’s Venture LabStartup Challenge awarded its 2022 prize to a sustainable and cost-effective water-testing startup. The venture, ToxiSense, was awarded at a ceremony on April 29, at Tangen Hall, Penn’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation.
Co-founded by four first-year students—Aravind Krishnan, Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran, and Aarush Sahni—ToxiSense aims to improve the endotoxin testing required for drinking water and biopharma products through genetically engineering plants with bioluminescent properties. Biopharmaceutical products and drinking water must be tested for endotoxins, the sickness-causing molecule from bacteria. The current method relies on expensive horseshoe crab blood and is environmentally damaging. ToxiSense genetically engineered the Arabidopsis plant to luminesce based on the endotoxin concentration applied to it, serving as a sustainable, cost-effective solution.
ToxiSense was selected from a field of eight finalist teams—including DeToXyFi, Groov, Impact Local, Miren, Nemu, Ossum Technologies, and Shinkei Systems Corp.—who advanced from 30 ventures during the semi-finals portion of the competition, which consisted of a day of virtual pitching and Q&A in front of alumni entrepreneur and investor panels. For the finals, teams pitched to a panel of alumni judges and in front of a live audience of nearly 200 attendees as they competed for over $150,000 in cash and prizes to launch their startups.
“The Startup Challenge is Venture Lab’s premier yearly event, showcasing Penn’s most promising teams of student entrepreneurs,” says Lori Rosenkopf, vice dean of entrepreneurship and Simon and Midge Palley Professor at the Wharton School. “This year’s finalists included undergraduate and graduate students from across the University, and their products offered solutions for environmental, financial, health, and social challenges. These motivated teams capture the spirit of Penn entrepreneurship—innovative, interdisciplinary, inclusive—and we offer our congratulations and our optimistic wishes for their futures.”
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos, winners of the 2022 President’s Innovation Prize, will offer a software solution to make the health care supply chain more efficient.
by Brandon Baker
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos are best friends. They’re also business partners.
The duo, who received this year’s President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) for Grapevine, met during sophomore year, connected through Yancopoulos’ roommate. As time went on, they did everything together: cooked meals, played basketball, and read and discussed fantasy novels.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Danon says.
It was only natural, then, that when the time came to start an actual venture, they’d do it together.
“They’re like brothers, in a very good way,” says mentor David Meaney of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who describes their working dynamic as “complementary.” “I think that will serve them well. Most of what we do in faculty is collaborative, and I see elements of that in their partnership. I give them credit for stepping out and doing something unusual and keeping at it.”
How Grapevine came to be
Grapevine is a software solution and professional networking platform that connects small-to-medium-size players in the health care supply chain. It’s a sort of two-pronged solution: It helps institutions like hospital systems connect disjointed operations like procurement and inventory management internally, but also serves as a glue between these institutions and purveyors of medical equipment.
“William and Luka are impact-driven entrepreneurs whose collaborative synergies will take them far,” says Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “The software provided by Grapevine is poised to reinvent how the health care industry buys and sells medical supplies and services and, truly, could not come at a timelier moment.”
The company is the evolution of a project they began at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, called Pandemic Relief Supply, which delivered $20 million of health care supplies to frontline workers.
“My mom was a nurse practitioner at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the largest hospital in the United States, and she was coming home with horror stories,” recalls Yancopoulos. “In surgery or the ER, a surgeon had to put on a garbage bag because they didn’t have a gown. And they gave her one mask to use for the rest of the month, and I’m seeing on the news, ‘Don’t wear a mask for more than three days.’”
This is where Yancopoulos and Danon first developed an interest in the health care supply chain. Using a database Penn allows students access to that maps the import of any good in the country, they did keyword matching to identify instreams of different goods and handed off findings to New York Presbyterian procurement staff. When McKesson, the largest provider of health care products and services in the U.S., took notice of what they were doing and reached out, they realized they were onto something. In response to their success, they started a company called Pandemic Relief Supply to distribute reliable medical supplies, including items like medical-grade masks and gloves, to frontline workers in the healthcare space.
As time passed, that project evolved into something larger: Grapevine.
In short, Grapevine’s software creates a professional networking platform to resolve miscommunications between suppliers and buyers, as well as adds a layer of transparency between interactants. Suppliers on the platform display real-time data about their inventory and shipping process, with timestamps; this prohibits companies from cherry-picking data or making false claims and creates a more health-care-supply-specific space for companies to interact than, say, LinkedIn.
“Primarily, the first step is we want people to use it internally, and streamline operations, and then through that centralized operational data, you can push that externally and that’s where [Grapevine] becomes a connector,” explains Danon. “Because when you’re choosing to connect with someone, the reason you can do so way more efficiently or quickly, is that data is actual operational data.”
To accomplish this level of transparency, the beginnings of Grapevine involved lots of legwork. Last year, the duo moved to Los Angeles to take stock of what suppliers existed where, and how reliable they were. They realized that many suppliers existed around Los Angeles because of port access; many medical supplies are imported from Asia. Their time in LA made the problem feel even more tangible, they agree.
“We were able to see people were doing outdated processes—manual processes—because there’s no other option,” Danon says. “So, we said, ‘Let’s get out there and do some work to be digital and technologically innovative.”
N.B.: Yancopolous’s senior design team created “Harvest” for their capstone project in Bioengineering, building on the existing Grapevine software package. Read Harvest’s abstract and view their final presentation on the BE Labs website.
Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market.
This year’s panel included 42 judges, 21 in-person and 21 online, who weighed in on 18 projects. Each winning team received a $2,000 prize, generously sponsored by Penn Engineering alumnus Kerry Wisnosky.
This year, Bioengineering teams won two of the four interdepartmental awards.
Technology & Innovation Award
This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.
Winner: Team Modulo Prosthetics Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Alisha Agarwal, Michelle Kwon, Gary Lin, Ian Ong, Zachary Spalding Mentor: Michael Hast Instructors: Sevile Mannickarottu, David Meaney, Michael Siedlik Abstract: Modulo Prosthetic is an adjustable, low-cost, thumb prosthetic with integrated haptic feedback that attaches to the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint of partial hand amputees and assists in activities of daily living (ADLs).
This award recognizes the team which most professionally and persuasively presents their group project to incorporate a full analysis of their project’s scope, advantages and challenges, as well as addresses the research’s future potential and prospects for commercialization.
Winner: Team ReiniSpec Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Caitlin Frazee, Caroline Kavanagh, Ifeoluwa Popoola, Alexa Rybicki, Michelle White Mentor: JeongInn Park Instructors: Sevile Mannickarottu, David Meaney, Michael Siedlik Abstract: ReiniSpec is a redesigned speculum to improve the gynecological exam experience, increasing patient comfort with a silicone shell and using motorized arm adjustments to make it easily adjustable for each patient, while also incorporating a camera, lights, and machine learning to aid in better diagnosis by gynecologists.
Recently, Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post spoke with Sizov about the hard work and flexibility it took to propel the company’s successful scaling endeavors: Strella is now monitoring 15 percent of all U.S. apples.
“Sizov, 24, wants to eliminate food waste one fruit at a time. In central Washington, it was an effort that required almost as much quick footwork as the épée squad she captained as a championship fencer in college. One moment, she was trying to beam the sensor’s WiFi signal through the reception black hole of millions of apples, which cause transmission issues because of their high water content. The next, she was sitting down with laconic apple growers with orchards planted generations ago, trying to convince them she could help them avoid wasted fruit. By day’s end, she might be folding her 6-foot frame into the passenger seat of a rental car, balancing her laptop on her knees and trying to win over Silicon Valley investors on Zoom calls using skills she had picked up partly by watching YouTube tutorials.”
Strella Biotechnology was founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the biomakerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Sizov and Penn Bioengineering alumna Malika Shukurova (BSE 2019) won a President’s Innovation Prize in 2019. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.
The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.
The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:
“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”
This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.
OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:
Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)
They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).
The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).
In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.
Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):
Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)
They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.
The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.
“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable chemicals in microbes.
“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”
Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.
Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.
Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.
Three recent Penn Bioengineering graduates took home the Best Application Award from the Medical Robotics for Contagious Disease Challenge, part of the three-month Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics. Organized by the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College, London, UK, in collaboration with the UK-RAS Network, the challenge involved “creating a 2-minute video of robotic or AI technology that could be used to tackle contagious diseases” in response to the current and potential future pandemics. Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rob Paslaski, and Phuong Vu were members of the Penn Bioengineering senior design team rUmVa who designed and built a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air. The Best Application Award comes with a prize of £5,000.
NextUp, a regular feature of Philadelphia Magazine that “highlights the local leaders, organizations and research shaping the Greater Philadelphia region’s life sciences ecosystem,” ran a profile of Philly-based agricultural startup Strella Biotechnology. Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the biomakerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering.
Sizov says the coronavirus pandemic has made the volatility of grocery stores’ offerings even more apparent. Last April, the Produce Marketing Association estimated that nearly $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables had gone to waste in the first month of the pandemic due to the complex supply chain’s inability to quickly redirect shipping and distribution. ‘In a way, I think COVID-19 has helped us realize how delicate and fragile supply chains are,’ she says. ‘We are working to create better, stronger supply chains that are economically and environmentally sustainable for everyone involved — researchers, growers, packagers, distributors, retailers, and consumers.'”
Each Penn Bioengineering (BE) student’s undergraduate experience culminates in Senior Design, a two-semester capstone project in which student teams conceive, design, and develop a bioengineering project, whether a medical device, molecular biological therapeutic, or research tool. Projects are inherently interdisciplinary, and can involve biomaterials, electronics, mechanics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, and microfluidics. Research and development is supervised by BE faculty, lab staff, and graduate student TA’s and project managers, and work is conducted in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace (which successfully reopened for in-person activities this Spring semester).
This year’s 11 teams included the variety and innovation we’ve come to expect from our outstanding students, ranging from devices which track medical conditions, such afib and POTS, to technology responding to our post-COVID world, such as a disinfecting robot and a kit to make telemedicine more effective. The year finished with presentations to alumni judges, and BE’s annual Demo Day (the only in-person demo day on the engineering campus this year) on April 15, 2021, in which students showcased their designs to faculty.
Several teams were highlighted for awards recognition.
Tula won the Grand Prize Award at the Weiss Tech House Senior Design Pitch competition, sponsored by Penn’s Weiss Tech House, as well as a Berkman Opportunity Fund grant from Penn Engineering. Tula’s members are Bioengineering student Shreya Parchure (BSE 2021 & MSE 2021), Mechanical Engineering student Miriam Glickman (BSE 2021 & MSE 2022), and Computer Science students Ebtihal Jasim (BSE 2021) and Tiffany Tsang (BSE 2021).
TelemedTree (David Alanis Garza, Aurora Cenaj & Raveen Kariyawasam) and rUmVA (Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rachel Madhogarhia, Jeong Inn Park, Robert Paslaski & Phuong Vu) also received Berkman Opportunity Fund grants.
RHO Therapeutics was named a finalist in the Rice 360 Design Competition for 2021 (David Bartolome, Ethan Boyer, Patrisia de Anda, Kelly Feng & Jenny Nguyen).
In addition, three teams won BE’s internal Senior Design competition: IdentiFly (MEAM student Armando Cabrera, ESE student Ethan Chaffee, MEAM student Zachary Lane, ESE student Nicoleta Manu & BE student Abum Okemgbo), OtoAI, and rUmVa.
Short descriptions of each project are below. See each project’s full abstract, final paper, and video presentation here. The full 2021 presentation Youtube playlist is linked below.
reActive is a low-cost wearable device that measures ground reaction force as well as knee angle to aid physical therapists in quantifying an athlete’s recovery from an ACL injury.
EndoMagno is a novel magnetic endoscopy probe that effectively grips metallic objects by interfacing with an endoscope.
NoFib is an at-home wearable for athletes with histories of atrial fibrillation or those recovering from ablation surgeries who wish to continue their workout regimen and track their cardiac recovery without needing to leave their residence.
Tula is a smart compression stocking platform to improve quality of life for people with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a disease which causes fainting upon standing due to blood pooling in legs. Tula can predict a POTS attack through real-time heart rate monitoring and then prevent fainting using dynamic compression.
RHO Therapeutics is a low-cost, wearable glove device that trains fine motor movements using a rehabilitative game that causes motor-mediated flexion and extension of the patient’s hand to aid in chronic stroke rehabilitation.
EarForce aims to monitor fighter pilots’ health during training and in-flight missions via a low-cost headphone system. The device collects physiological data through the ear and is compatible with existing pilot headphone systems.
IdentiFly is a low-cost device which will provide labs with an easy to integrate way to automatically sort fruit flies by sex.
TeleMedTree introduces a new level of telemedicine. It is an affordable precision-focused, at-home diagnostic kit to help immunocompromised individuals with respiratory conditions receive a high quality monitoring of their health that is on par or better than what is possible during an in-person visit.
OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.
Synchro-Sense is a device which detects when patients on ventilators are at maximum inhalation and triggers an X-ray image capture for accuracy.
rUmVa is a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air.
While the majority of courses remained online this spring, a small number of lab-based undergraduate courses were able to resume limited in-person instruction. One course was BE 310, the second semester of the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design lab sequence. Better known as BE-MAD, this junior-year bioengineering course was able to bring students back to the teaching lab safely this spring while adapting its curriculum to keep remote learners engaged with hands-on lab modules at home.
An Essential Step Towards Becoming a Bioengineer
After learning the basics of chemistry, physics, biology, and math during freshman year and studying bioengineering fundamentals throughout sophomore year, BE-MAD is designed to provide essential hands-on experience to bioengineering majors during their junior years. In BE-MAD, students integrate what they’ve learned so far in the classroom to addressing complex, real-world problems by breaking down the silos that exist across different STEM fields.
“Usually what we hear from students is that this BE 309/310 sequence is when they really feel like they are engineers,” says Brian Chow, one of the BE 310 instructors. “They can put what they learn in classes to work in some practical setting and applied context.”
BE-MAD is also an important course to prepare students for senior design and is designed to be a “safe space to fail,” allowing students to build confidence through trial and error within a supportive environment, explains Sevile G. Mannickarottu, director of the educational laboratories. “We’re trying to build skills needed for senior year as well as teaching students how to think critically about problems by pulling together the materials they’ve learned all in one place,” he says. “By senior year, we want them to, when presented with a problem, not be afraid.”
Adapting BE-MAD for Both Remote and Hybrid Instruction
Traditionally, the BE-MAD lab is taught in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary bioengineering teaching lab, and includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis, and spectroscopy. In the fall, the first lab in the series (BE-309) pivoted to remote learning using video tutorials of lab experiments and providing real data to students for analysis.
This spring, with more aspects of on-campus life able to reopen, the Educational Laboratory staff and BE-MAD instructors developed protocols in collaboration with David Meaney, Penn Engineering senior associate dean and an instructor for BE 309, and Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety office to safely reopen the teaching lab and Bio-MakerSpace for both BE-310 and for bioengineering senior design students.
To continue to meet the needs of remote students, BE 310 instructor Lukasz Bugaj says that the curriculum was adapted to be two parallel courses—one that could be done entirely at home and the other in-person. The challenge was to adjust the content so that it could be completed either in-person or virtually, and could be switched from in-person to virtual at a moment’s notice because of COVID precautions, all while maximizing the hands-on experience, says Bugaj. “That’s a real credit to the lab staff of Sevile and Michael Patterson, who put a lot of work into revamping this entire class.”