Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
November 10, 2019 | Tom Ballard

LEAPh captures top prize in inaugural “Scipreneur Challenge” pitch competition

An idea advanced by three doctoral students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) captured first place and $2,000 to advance the technology during the pitch competition that concluded the inaugural “Scipreneur Challenge.”

Organized by the Knoxville Chapter of Life Science Tennessee’s Academic Alliance, the almost semester-long event helped teams of graduate students develop business plans for promising technologies provided by the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The initiative helps grow the life science sector in Tennessee, both in terms of talent and new companies.

LEAPh – Thursday night’s winner – is a UT technology that harnesses the power of nature, using photosynthetic proteins to produce flexible, sustainable and non-toxic panels that convert sunlight into electricity. Nate Brady, one of the three team members, presented the group’s plans at the pitch competition.

“The magic of our process occurs at the frontend,” he explained. Brady is working on his doctorate in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology as is team member Debalina Acharyya. The third member – Matt Tuttle – is a PhD candidate in microbiology. They are pictured at left.

Brady said UTRF has a provisional patent on the technology and the team believes they could have product in the market within 30 months after raising $500,000.

Two other teams presented. Second place and $500 went to MetabolicaLabs. In his presentation of the ORNL technology, Alex Ruzicka, a graduate student in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, asked attendees to imagine what it would be like in 2019 if the Google search engine had not been developed.

“We would be living in the dark ages,” he said, adding that is the case in the biotechnology industry. “We need a biological search engine,” and that’s where MetabolicaLabs is focused. The ORNL technology is a technique to generate and characterize a panel of hybrid bacteria to serve as hosts for engineered metabolic pathways. Rachel Harrison was the other member of the team.

The other presentation came from Spiridon Papoulis who described CellSight, a technology that enables quantitative, targeted or untargeted chemical analysis of single cells without extensive sample preparation procedures while also being able to measure single cells with high throughput.

To illustrate the technology, Papoulis showed the field at Neyland Stadium that was fuzzy. You could only see an orange Power T in a field of green. Then, he showed a much higher resolution photo of the same scene that provided significantly more clarity.

“That’s exactly what CellSight is trying to do,” the graduate student in microbiology said. “We want to increase the resolution for biotech.”

As noted in this recent article, CellSight is one of five ORNL technologies that are being recognized as 2019 winners of “R&D 100 Awards.”

The three teams were supported throughout the program that launched right after Labor Day by a number of people including mentors Jeff Beegle of mobius (LEAPh), Steve Ripp of 490 BioTech and Eric Mayer of EDP Biotech Corporation (MetabolicaLabs), and Dan Close of 490 BioTech (CellSight).

The “Scipreneur Challenge” is based on the “TechVenture Challenge” launched several years ago at Vanderbilt University. Under Life Science Tennessee’s leadership, the concept was expanded to Memphis a few years ago and can now be considered a statewide initiative after its successful launch in Knoxville.

Kate Halter and Justin Westerfield are the leaders of the Knoxville Chapter of the Academic Alliance. Westerfield says he is nearing completion of his doctorate, while Halter has finished and is now on the team at 490 Biotech.

Judges for the competition were Jon Huber, Director of Innovation for Radio Systems Corporation; Lee Martin, a well-known Knoxville entrepreneur and Director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program at UTK; and Tom Rogers, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cherokee Farm Development Corporation.

All of the participants and the leaders of the Knoxville Chapter of the Academic Alliance are pictured here. Brady is in the far left, Ruzicka is fourth from the left, Papoulis is next to him, Halter is third from the right, and Westerfield is on the the far right.