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.'”
One example is Strella Biotechnology, founded in 2019 by Katherine Sizov (Biology 2019 & President’s Innovation Prize winner). Strella is developing sensors with the ability to reduce the amount of food waste due to going bad in storage. “Having a Bio-MakerSpace that gives you the functionalities of both a wet lab and a traditional electronics lab is extremely helpful in developing novel technologies” says Sizov on the BE Labs Youtube channel.
The Bio-MakerSpace provides students of all academic backgrounds the resources to turn their ideas into realities, including highly knowledgeable lab staff. Seth Fein (BSE ’20, MSE ’21) has worked at the lab since Fall 2020. “Because bioengineering spans many fields, we encourage interdisciplinary work. Students from Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineering have all found valuable resources in the lab,” says Fein.
The article also discusses the many resources the BioMakerSpace provides to Penn students and their efforts to keep the lab functional, safe, and open for research and education during the current semester.
Penn Health-Tech is an interdisciplinary center launched in 2017 to advance medical device innovation across the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences by forging collaborative connections among Penn researchers and providing seed funding to incubate novel ideas to advance health care.
Continue reading “The Bio-MakerSpace — Fostering Learning and Innovation Across Many Disciplines” at the Penn Health-Tech blog.
“Our Bio-MakerSpace” takes viewers on a tour inside BE’s one-of-a-kind educational laboratories.
Produced primarily on smart phones and with equipment borrowed from the Penn Libraries, and software provided by Computing and Educational Technology Services, the videos were made by rising Bioengineering junior Nicole Wojnowski (BAS ‘22). Nicole works on staff as a student employee of the BE Labs and as a student researcher in the Gottardi Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), helmed by Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Riccardo Gottardi.
Sevile Mannickarottu, Director of the Educational Labs in Bioengineering, says that the philosophy of the Bio-MakerSpace “encourages a free flow of ideas, creativity, and entrepreneurship between Bioengineering students and students throughout Penn. We are the only open Bio-MakerSpace with biological, chemical, electrical, materials, and mechanical testing and fabrication facilities, all in one place, anywhere.”
Bioengineering doctoral student Dayo Adewole co-founded the company Instahub, which also took home a PIP award in 2019. Dayo also graduated from the BE undergraduate program in 2014. In this video, he discusses the helpfulness and expertise of the BE Labs staff.
Senior Associate Dean for Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering David Meaney discusses how the Bio-MakerSpace is the only educational lab on campus to provide “all of the components that one would need to make the kinds of systems that bioengineers make.”
Last year, Katherine Sizov (BIO ’19) and Malika Shukurova (BE ’19) earned the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize for their plan to use Internet-of-Things technology to monitor fruit ripeness and reduce waste in produce supply chains. Their company, Strella Biotechnology, received $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center.
Now, it has $3.3 million on hand as it attempts to take its technology into retail stores.
Strella’s ethylene sensors are already being used by fruit packers in order to more precisely time shipments as their produce ripens. The Penn start-up company thinks retailers could similarly benefit when it comes to deciding when to put their stock out for sale.
The George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace, more commonly known as the Bio-MakerSpace, has recently become a hub for Penn student start-ups that continue after graduation. Beyond offering a home base for projects by Bioengineering majors, the lab is also open to Penn students, regardless of major. Unlike other departmental undergraduate labs, the Bio-MakerSpace encourages interdisciplinary projects and collaborations from students across all different majors.
Even better, the lab has a neutral policy when it comes to intellectual property (IP), meaning all IP behind student projects belongs to the students instead of the lab or the engineering school. With a wide variety of prototyping equipment, coding and software programs installed on lab computers, and an extremely helpful lab staff, the Bio-MakerSpace provides students of all academic backgrounds the resources to turn their ideas into realities or even businesses, as a recent succession of start-ups founded in the lab has shown.
One of the most successful start-ups to come out of the Bio-MakerSpace in the last few years is Group K Diagnostics, founded by 2017 Bioengineering alumna Brianna Wronko. The company focuses on the use of a point-of-care diagnostic device called KromaHealthTM. Offering a variety of different tests based on the input of a small amount of blood, serum, or urine, the device induces a color change through a series of reactions that can be detected through image processing. Developed in part from Wronko’s senior design project (hence the name “Group K”) and in part from her experience working at an HIV clinic, Group K Diagnostics looks to expand access to care for all populations.
But not all start-ups from the Bio-MakerSpace have origins in senior design projects. Three start-ups from 2019, two of which won the Penn President’s Innovation Prize, all began as independent initiatives from students. InstaHub, founded by 2019 Wharton alumnus Michael Wong with help from Bioengineering doctoral candidate Dayo Adewole, is a company that focuses on the use of snap-on automation for light energy conservation. A simple and easy-to-install device with motion and occupancy sensors, InstaHub aims to reduce energy consumption in a way that’s simpler and cheaper than rewiring projects that might otherwise be required. Here, Adewole shares the way that access to the Bio-MakerSpace provided InstaHub with a helpful platform.
The second start-up from 2019 to come out of the Bio-MakerSpace and win a President’s Innovation Prize is Strella Biotechnology, founded by recent graduate Katherine Sizov (Biology 2019). In developing sensors with the ability to detect ethylene gas emitted by rotting fruits, Strella hopes to reduce the immense amount of food waste due to produce simply going bad in storage. With a patent-pending biosensor that mimics the way ripe fruits detect ethylene emissions of nearby rotting fruits, the technology behind Strella involves both biology and aspects of engineering. In this video, Sizov herself talks about the way that the Bio-MakerSpace opened its doors to her, and allowed her work to really take off with the help of resources she wouldn’t have easily found otherwise.
Yet another start-up to use the Bio-MakerSpace as a launch pad for innovation is BioAlert Technologies, comprised of a group of Penn engineering undergraduate and graduate students, including 2019 Bioengineering alumnus Johnny Forde and current Biotechnology student Marc Rosenberg, who is the startup’s CEO and founder. BioAlert’s innovations are in what they call continuous infection monitoring (CIM) systems, designed to detect infections in patients with diabetic foot ulcers. Often, even when properly bandaged by a doctor, these ulcers run the risk of bacterial infection once a patient returns home and continues to care for the wound. BioAlert uses their platform to assess whether or not a bacterial infection might occur in a given patient’s wound, and uses an app to alert both patients and doctors of it, so that patients can receive the proper response treatment and medication as quickly as possible.
Though each of these start-ups used the resources of the Bio-MakerSpace, they are each interdisciplinary approaches to solving real-world problems today. Paired with other student resources at Penn like courses offered under an Engineering Entrepreneurship minor, knowledge from the nearby Wharton business school professors, and competitions like the Rothberg Catalyzer, the Bio-MakerSpace allows for any student to transform their idea into a reality, and potentially take it to market.
On the second floor of the Pennovation Center, Strella Biotechnology is hard at work turning their student-led startup into a full-fledged company that’s ready to make a major impact in the agricultural sector.
May graduates Katherine Sizov and Malika Shukurova, respectively the CEO and head of R&D at Strella, share a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, which includes $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center. The alumnae and their company are now poised to take on the challenge of $1 trillion worth of food waste.
Strella’s biosensors are designed to give packers real-time data on how ripe their fruits are while being stored between harvesting and selling. Using bio-inspired sensors that measure the ethylene gas produced by fruits as they ripen, Strella successfully “hacked the fruit” to create their patent-pending biosensors. Now, only six months after graduation, Strella has six paying customers and is aiming for $100,000 in sales by the end of the season.
Beyond the work needed to deploy their first paid product, Strella also has a clear view of what needs to be done for future progress of the company. This means running experiments in the lab to refine their current sensors while conducting other experiments that will help the company be able to monitor other types of fresh foods. It’s a job that Shukurova says involves a lot of multitasking and requires an “all-hands” approach to problem solving.
“We set up experiments that run for several days, and during that period we work on different tasks. I prepare for the next set of experiments, Jacob [Jordan] and Katherine travel to our customers to deploy sensors, and Zuyang [Liu]]works on IoT [Internet of Things]. At the end of the day we all come together to discuss results and future plans,” says Shukurova about their company’s work flow.
Bringing home a bad apple or two from the grocery store might not seem like a huge deal to the average consumer. But for producers and sellers of fresh fruits and vegetables, the staggering 40% of food that goes bad before it even reaches a store means mounds of wasted food and nearly $1 trillion in lost profits.
Now, thanks to a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) award, seniors Katherine Sizov of Alexandria, Virginia, and Malika Shukurova of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, plan to address the issue and optimize the produce supply chain. The prize will help them grow their novel biosensing technology startup company Strella Biotechnology.
Sizov, who is majoring in molecular biology, likes to ask everyone the same question when talking about Strella: “How old do you think an apple in a grocery store is?” As it turns out, an apple from a store may have been in storage anywhere from a couple months to up to more than a year. “That’s one fact that you don’t really consider when you go into a store because you’re so used to seeing fresh fruit,” she says.
The idea for Strella came to life when Sizov, who was previously doing undergraduate research on neurodegenerative disorders, found herself reading papers outside of her main area of study and chatting with Shukurova about what she learned about food waste. The two friends had met during freshmen year through the Penn Russian Club.
That 40% of all fresh produce going to waste is what motivated Sizov. “I thought it was the most ridiculous number in the world,” she says. “This clearly is a problem that could be solved, and, since ag is a bio space, I thought we could use the technical knowledge that we have to solve the problem.”
Shukurova, a bioengineering major, quickly became interested in seeking a solution with Sizov. “At that time I was becoming increasingly interested in the technical aspects [of the problem], and more focused towards building a solution by sensing,” she says. Their complementary areas of technical expertise, and two years of friendship, led to a collaboration.
They soon found a potential approach: Ripening fruits release ethylene gas, and the amount of the gas correlates with a fruit’s ripeness. The challenge, however, is that man-made compounds do not bind ethylene with much specificity, so it’s a difficult gas to measure.
Strella’s solution? “Hack the fruit,” says Sizov, explaining that fruits can already measure ethylene themselves. Placing a ripe banana next to an unripe banana, for example, causes the unripe fruit to ripen more quickly. “Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s use what a fruit uses to sense ethylene,” she says.
After Sizov “hacked” the fruit and had a potential biosensor in hand, Shukurova’s experience and technical knowledge in bioengineering gave her knowledge on both the electronic and biological aspects of the problem. Their patent-pending sensor is now a “leading ripeness indicator” that Strella can monitor on a constant basis.
But bringing their biosensor to market means overcoming technical and biological challenges, including biosensor stability and powering the electrical components that collect data. Sizov and Shukurova put together a team of people with complementary knowledge, including Zuyang Liu, an electrical engineering master’s student; Reggie Lamaute, an undergraduate studying chemistry and nanotechnology; and Jay Jordan, who has previous experience in sales and market development in agriculture.
Mentorship was also crucial for the success of their startup, with both naming Sevile Mannickarottu and their PIP mentor, Jeffrey Babin, as instrumental resources. Babin, who first met Sizov when she took his engineering entrepreneurship lab and who later served as her Wharton accelerator program advisor, says that Sizov was able to take skills she gained in the classroom and directly apply them in business scenarios. “She’s fearless in terms of picking up the phone and talking to strangers, gauging the market place, and taking on the tough issues in starting a company,” he says.
The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate two of our graduating seniors on their 2019 President’s Engagement Prize and President’s Innovation Prize. Awarded annually, the Prizes empower students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each Prize-winning project will receive $1000,000, as well as $50,000 living stipend per team member.
BE senior Oladunni Alomaja (BSE 2019) and her partners Princess Aghayere and Summer Kollie won a President’s Engagement Prize for Rebound Liberia. Ola and her partners will use basketball as a tool to bridge the literacy gap between men and women and as a mechanism for youth to cope with the trauma and stress of daily life in post-conflict Liberia. Rebound Liberia will build an indoor basketball court in conjunction with a community resource center, and its annual three-month summer program will combine basketball clinics with daily reading and writing sessions and personal development workshops. The team is being mentored by Ocek Eke, director of global and local service-learning programs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
BE senior Malika Shukurova (BSE 2019, also pursuing a MSE in BE) and her partner Katherine Sizov won a President’s Innovation Prize for Strella Biotechnology. Strella is developing a bio-sensor that can predict the maturity of virtually any fresh fruit. Strella’s sensors are installed in controlled atmosphere storage rooms, monitoring apples as they ripen. This enables packers and distributors to identify the ripest apples and fruit for their customers, thus minimizing spoilage and food waste and promoting sustainability. Strella’s current market is U.S apple packers and distributors, which represent a $4 billion produce industry. The startup is looking to expand to other markets, such as bananas and pears, in the future. Malika and Katherine are being mentored by Jeffrey Babin, Practice Professor and Associate Director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program. Katherine, a Biology major in the College of Arts and Sciences, developed the company as a sophomore in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the primary teaching lab for the Department of Bioengineering.
Another winner of the President’s Innovation Prize, Wharton student Michael Wong for InstaHub, also has BE connections: One of the co-founders, Oladayo (Dayo) Adewole, graduated with a BSE in Bioengineering in 2015, went on to achieve his master’s in Robotics, and is currently back in BE pursuing his PhD. InstaHub’s mission is to eliminate energy waste through snap-on automation that enhances, rather than replaces, existing building infrastructure. Founded at Penn in 2016, InstaHub is focused on fighting climate change through energy conservation efforts with cleantech building automation technology. The initial development work for InstaHub was also done in the George H. Stephenson lab here in BE.
Congratulations once again to all the winners of this year’s President’s Engagement Prize and President’s Innovation Prize! Read more about the awards and all the winners at Penn Today and the Penn Engineering Medium Blog.