Five student ventures progress to compete for $100,000 prize in 2019 ASU Innovation Open

December 19, 2018

Last Friday, five student-led teams each won $5,000 and moved one step closer to potentially earning the $100,000 grand prize to fund their startups in the ASU Innovation Open pitch competition.

Excitement and expectation reverberated throughout the presentation room at ASU’s SkySong campus as the early-stage entrepreneurs representing the top 15 ventures presented five-minute pitches to peers and a panel of judges made up of Phoenix-area business leaders and entrepreneurs. ASU Innovation Open finalists Five teams representing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; University of California, San Diego; McGill University; University of Pennsylvania; and Brown University have progressed to the finals for the 2019 ASU Innovation Open. These teams will pitch their ventures for the chance to win $100,000 to help fund their startups. Download Full Image

The ASU Innovation Open, which is in its third year, invites student-led, multidisciplinary teams of collegiate startup founders who are harnessing the power of entrepreneurship to tackle the world’s most challenging problems.

Selected from dozens of applications submitted from around the world, the student ventures ranged from biotech startups developing technology to optimize personalized health to one company’s out-of-this-world prototype aiming to remove and reduce space debris.

The day included advice and feedback from Todd Davis, CEO and co-founder of LifeLock, a Tempe-based company that has been safeguarding users against identity theft since 2005, and a question-and-answer session from a panel of past ASU Innovation Open winners and competitors.

Five finalists were chosen to receive a $5,000 cash prize from Zero Mass Water, an Arizona State University spinoff founded in 2015 by ASU Associate Professor Cody Friesen.

“Zero Mass Water gives this gift of $25,000 a year because while we’re a startup — although a late-stage startup — it’s never too early to begin paying forward and building an ecosystem of entrepreneurship,” said Friesen. “We got this massive leg up because of the existence of ASU and being competitive within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Thinking about how we can enable other entrepreneurs to get that leg up to go faster is what we were thinking about when we founded this competition and now why we fund the semifinals.”

Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — another of the event’s sponsors — welcomed students and guests. Using Zero Mass Water as an example, he encouraged the young entrepreneurs to strive to make a lasting impact in their communities.

“This is when it’s working — a company out in the community, employing engineers, creating value and closing the loop by giving back. And that’s what we want you to be able to do in your communities,” said Squires. “Get to the point where you are not only having individual success and advancing your venture and the networks you’re creating, but that you can also eventually give back. Once that cycle starts to work, it feeds on and repeats itself, and then the entire community is winning.”

Avnet’s ongoing partnership with ASU includes supporting aspiring entrepreneurs to advance their innovations and is the reason the company has supported and sponsored the competition since its inception.  

"For the third year in a row, we’ve seen incredible innovation, imagination and sophistication from these young entrepreneurs," said Melissa Gray, vice president of Corporate Affairs for Avnet. "The competition keeps getting better and better, and it’s very exciting to watch that progression. The types of technology solutions presented today take on some of the world’s toughest challenges underscoring our own guiding mantra to ‘reach further’ and make a difference." 

The five ventures selected to progress to the ASU Innovation Open finals are: 

  • Cloud Agronomics, presented by Jack Roswell and Oleksiy Zhuk from Brown University, is an aerial imaging and data analytics venture in the agri-tech sector that is dedicated to reducing food waste. The company collects ultra-high-definition images taken from manned aircraft to scout evidence of crop disease and advise farmers to act.
  • Infinite Cooling, presented by Maher Damak from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has technology to capture large amounts of pure water from the evaporative losses of cooling towers in power plants. Their cooling apparatus has already been installed at a power plant on the MIT campus, and other industry leaders are looking to incorporate their ideas to recycle water for reuse in their cooling systems.
  • SoleMate Solutions, presented by Surabhi Kalyan and Kristine Khieu from the University of California, San Diego, makes a smart-shoe insole that optimizes lower-extremity rehabilitation by measuring weight applied and providing real-time feedback. The smart sole can improve recovery time and help prevent serious complications that may occur after a patient is discharged.
  • Soundskrit, presented by Sahil Gupta from McGill University, is leveraging years of research in biomimetic microphone design to develop multi-directional Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) microphones that will significantly improve audio capture. This velocity microphone technology will dynamically track and listen to multiple inputs and improves years of stagnant technology in audio capture.
  • Strella Biotechnology, presented by Katherine Sizov from the University of Pennsylvania, makes biosensing platforms that measure fruit ripeness by measuring ethylene gas production and provide actionable data to packers and distributors to reduce food waste and increase fruit quality. The technology is already in use by apple packers in Washington state and Pennsylvania.

In February, the five teams will compete for $100,000, $25,000 and $10,000 prizes to help fund their ventures. Avnet, the title sponsor for the event, will supply the grand prize, while ON Semiconductor and Roambotics will fund the second- and third-place awards, respectively. The student ventures will be judged on multiple aspects of their business plan and product development, including market research, prototypes and website development.

The five-person judging panel included representatives from several of the event’s sponsors: Cody Friesen, CEO of Zero Mass Water; Therese Bassett, chief strategy, innovation and M&A officer at Avnet; Richard Diaz, global account director at ON Semiconductor; Scott Menor, CEO of Roambotics; and Gabriel Ramirez, senior director of business development at Sitewire.  

Other ASU Innovation Open sponsors include the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Arizona Board of Regents, with additional support from the ASU Entrepreneurship + Innovation program and the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Named the most innovative university in the United States for the fourth consecutive year by U.S. News and World Report, Arizona State University is uniquely positioned to co-host the growing competition, which embodies ASU’s commitment to valuing entrepreneurship in all of its forms.

For more information on the ASUio, visit

Lanelle Strawder

Assistant director for marketing and communications, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Learning sustainability on the ground in Nepal and China

ASU students learn from sustainable farmers across the globe.
Three-week program is open to all majors at ASU.
December 19, 2018

Summer 2019 program expands its locations; applications are open and due by March 1

As Arizona State University senior sustainability scientists Nalini Chhetri and Netra Chhetri know, some educational experiences are more effective outside the classroom.

That’s why the wife-and-husband pair of ASU professors have directed a study abroad program in Nepal for nearly five years.Though directing the program isn’t easy, Nalini Chhetri — who is also the assistant director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society — said she keeps doing it because she wants to “provide students with immersive and hands-on experience that has authenticity and credibility. Doing so allows students to have a deeper awareness and respect for local knowledge that supplements their classroom learning, and that is invaluable in preparing them to make a positive difference in this complex world.”

While past programs have taken place only in Nepal, June 2019's three-week program, called “Innovation in Green Growth in China and Nepal,” will also take students to China as well. Students will spend time in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital; the farming community of Pokhara, Nepal; and Guangzhou and Shishou, cities in China.

Specifics have changed from year to year, but the focus of the program is always on engaging communities in sustainable growth and renewable energy. In 2018, 14 ASU students from various majors participated in five main activities: They led STEM projects for schoolchildren, attended workshops to design an eco-park protecting Rhino Lake in Chitwan National Park, produced high-quality biochar, installed a fully operational solar irrigation system serving an indigenous community and learned from sustainable farmers in Pokhara.

Almost all activities on this study abroad program, offered through the ASU Study Abroad Office, are done in conjunction with local university students.

“I attribute so much of my learning towards my interactions and conversations with these students and would not have learned anywhere near as much without them,” said School of Sustainability PhD student Leah Jones, who joined the study abroad program in 2017 (pictured at the top of this article). “I was able to pick their brains and learn about the nuances of Nepali culture in a unique way, while also being able to share my American culture with the students.”

For School of Sustainability undergraduate Mikka Suhonen, who participated in 2018, learning from the sustainable farmers was a major trip highlight. As he noted, the farmers had radically different landscapes on which to create their farms.

“In turn, each farmer had unique approaches to creating their livelihood on that land,” Suhonen said. “One farmer had an intricate system where water would carry pig slurry down a hill to a pond in order to feed the fish inhabiting it. Another utilized the different heights of trees and vegetation in order to grow shade crops such as coffee. And another raised fish in a rice paddy, which fed the fish on bugs that normally prey on the rice stalks. The best part? We call it sustainability, but they call it surviving.”

This aspect of the program will remain in 2019. “There is no alternative to learning by observing and engaging with the farmers to whom the practice of a sustainable system is a way of life,” Nalini Chhetri said.

The 2019 study abroad program will also give students hands-on experience with sustainable economy projects and sustainable development that revolves around renewable energy. Applications are accepted until March 1, 2019, and the program is open to all majors. Students will receive four credits by the end of their experience. The Chhetris will again direct the program, along with the support of John “Marty” Anderies, a professor in School of Sustainability and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

“If you ever have the opportunity to be a part of this program with the Drs. Chhetri, I highly recommend it,” Suhonen said. “They are fantastic people, and the trip is surreal, both in experiences and natural beauty.”

Video courtesy of ASU student Megan Dieu, who participated in the program in 2018.

Top photo: Leah Jones, a doctoral student in the School of Sustainability, joined the Nepal study abroad program in 2017. To learn more about the 250-plus study-abroad programs in more than 65 different countries offered at ASU, see the Study Abroad Office website.

Kayla Frost

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise