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ASU entrepreneurs win thousands of dollars for problem-solving ventures

ASU entrepreneurs tackle big global problems at Demo Day pitch competition.
April 21, 2019

Demo Day includes new competitions for Mastercard Scholars, Amazon Alexa projects

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Dozens of eager entrepreneurs in the Arizona State University community came together on Friday to pitch their ideas and solve problems that ranged from inconvenient to deadly serious.

REACT is a group of students who provide education and medical care to refugees in Phoenix. The Packed App aims to cut the time that restaurant patrons wait for their server to close out their bar tab. Suntaa Shea Company is working to end the exploitation of women in Ghana and empower them to make a living. Streamwork is a platform that connects students to peer tutors at night after the tutoring center closes.

They were among 80 ASU-affiliated startups that won nearly $200,000 in investment funding and services at the Demo Day entrepreneurship competition on April 19. The projects are part of Venture Devils, a program in the office of Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU that provides space, mentorship and access to funding to ASU students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. The teams pitched their ventures to a panel of judges in nine funding competitions at the daylong event, held at SkySong in Scottsdale.

Some of the ventures have already reaped tens of thousands of dollars in grants or investments from previous pitch competitions. Pablo Guimera Coll, a PhD student in materials science and engineering at ASU, is cofounder of Crystal Sonic, a company that uses sound waves to more precisely cut silicon wafers for the technology industry.

Coll told the judges that traditional laser cutting of wafers produces a lot of waste.

“We have a much better solution — apply sound waves to cut the wafer, which is 10 times faster and reduces the defects,” he said. His method also is cheaper.

Crystal Sonic has received more than $300,000 from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. On Friday, the venture was one of the big winners, receiving $20,000 from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

Other ventures are just getting launched. Jared Hsu, a senior majoring in technological entrepreneurship and management, created StreamWork, a platform that connects students to peer tutors with a whiteboard technology that allows them to see a problem being worked out.

Hsu attends the Polytechnic campus, where the tutoring center closes at 5 p.m.

“So procrastinators like myself have no one to turn to in the middle of the night when we need help,” he said.

StreamWork users will get one free month and then pay a monthly subscription, with the student tutors also getting paid.

Hsu said he has partnered with the Poly tutoring center in a soft launch during finals week next month.

“So the tutors are vetted by ASU,” he said. “We hope in the fall semester to be fully established in the tutoring center.”

Sophia Collier describes Sotra Fashion to the judges

ASU student Sophia Collier describes Sotra Fashion, her line of modest clothing, to the judges at Demo Day on Friday. She had her first fashion show last week. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Another student-led venture that’s already finding success is Sotra Fashion. Sophia Collier, a junior majoring in technological entrepreneurship and management, founded the fashion line of modest clothing — which already has made $8,000 in sales — after visiting a mall with some Muslim friends and realizing much of the clothing was crop tops and ripped jeans.

“There wasn’t a lot of modern, modest fashion available to women that’s affordable and that works in the summer,” she said.

The Sotra website sells flowy, long-sleeved jumpsuits and colorful dresses in the $50 range. Collier had her first pop-up store and fashion show on campus last week.

“We want to be creative and don’t think that modesty should limit you,” said Collier, who said she’s using student designers to create some of the pieces. She won $15,000 in the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

One new competition this year was the Scholar Entrepreneurship Fund, for students from Africa who are studying at ASU as Mastercard Foundation Scholars. Their ideas are for projects to make a difference in their home countries.

Shantel Marekera is cofounder of Little Dreamers Preparatory Academy, a subsidized preschool in her native Zimbabwe. Many organizations offer scholarships for primary and secondary school, but few offer aid for preschool, said Marekera, a graduate student in justice studies who recently became a Rhodes Scholar.

“So many families send boys to school but not girls,” she said. “I believe preschool is the most important foundational process in a child’s development.”

Shantel Marekera

Shantel Marekera, is cofounder of Little Dreamers Preparatory Academy, a subsidized preschool in her native Zimbabwe. She pitched her venture to judges at Demo Day on Friday and won $5,000. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 Her school, which launched in January with a handful of children, teaches computer literacy and French.

“We want to create this dynamic group of students to be innovative from a tender age,” said Marekera. Her venture won $5,000 in the competition, which will go toward the purchase of a minivan so more students can attend the school.

Godfred Naah, a scholar from Ghana who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration, won $6,500 for his venture, the Suntaa Shea Society.

Naah explained that in rural Ghana, women pick the seeds of the shea trees that grow wild, but then have only the option of selling to middlemen, who underpay them.

“Our solution is to open a shea butter processing center, and we will buy the shea kernels from the women at higher prices and also employ them to process the kernels,” he said.

Shea is processed for cooking oil and also for use in cosmetics and candy.

“This will empower the women and give them more options,” he said.

Other winners in Demo Day included:

• REACT, a group of ASU students who have partnered with Mayo Clinic to offer primary care and culturally sensitive education to refugees in Phoenix, won $20,000 in the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. The money will allow the group to expand clinical operations. REACT stands for Refugee Education and Clinic Team.

• LabRat, an app created by undergraduate students Will Mabrey and Austin Smith that’s like a matching service for labs and study subjects, won $5,000 in the Ashton Family Venture Challenge. Users fill out a form and the labs can draw from a wider pool of subjects, while subjects get paid for participating in studies.

• HAT-TAC, a customizable hat storage and display hanger invented by Domenic Fotino, who earned a degree in technological entrepreneurship and management, won $5,000 in the eSeed competition.

CJ Allen, an ASU graduate who works at Amazon, was a judge in the first-ever Amazon Alexa The winners, which both incorporated voice technology, were Avontage, a platform for small business owners, and DXOrders, a platform that connects doctors and patients. Venture Challenge, which gave $5,000 each to two teams.

“I’ve done these pitches, and I heard ‘no’ a hundred times before I heard ‘yes,’” he told the crowd during the awards celebration.

“The pitches we saw today were amazing. I saw passion and innovation, and there aren’t many colleges that have access to this.”

Top image: Pablo Guimera Coll, a PhD student in materials science and engineering at ASU, tells the judges about his company, Crystal Sonic, which uses sound waves to more precisely cut silicon wafers, at Demo Day on Friday at SkySong in Scottsdale. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Using DNA templates to harness the sun’s energy

April 22, 2019

As the world struggles to meet the increasing demand for energy, coupled with the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from deforestation and the use of fossil fuels, photosynthesis in nature simply cannot keep up with the carbon cycle. But what if we could help the natural carbon cycle by learning from photosynthesis to generate our own sources of energy that didn't generate CO2? Artificial photosynthesis does just that, harnessing the sun's energy to generate fuel in ways that minimize CO2 production.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a team of researchers led by Hao Yan, Yan Liu and Neal Woodbury of the School of Molecular Sciences and Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at Arizona State University report significant progress in optimizing systems that mimic the first stage of photosynthesis, capturing and harnessing light energy from the sun. Double-stranded DNA acts as a template for self-assembly of cyanine dyes that serve as "exciton wires" for directional energy transport. Double-stranded DNA as a template to guide self-assembly of cyanine dye forming strongly-coupled dye aggregates. These DNA-templated dye aggregates serve as “exciton wires” to facilitate directional, efficient energy transfer over distances up to 32 nm. Download Full Image

Recalling what we learned in biology class, the first step in photosynthesis in a plant leaf is capture of light energy by chlorophyll molecules. The next step is efficiently transferring that light energy to the part of the photosynthetic reaction center where the light-powered chemistry takes place. This process, called energy transfer, occurs efficiently in natural photosynthesis in the antenna complex. Like the antenna of a radio or a television, the job of the photosynthetic antenna complex is to gather the absorbed light energy and funnel it to the right place. How can we build our own “energy transfer antenna complexes”, i.e., artificial structures that absorb light energy and transfer it over distance to where it can be used?  

“Photosynthesis has mastered the art of collecting light energy and moving it over substantial distances to the right place for light-driven chemistry to take place," Woodbury said. "The problem with the natural complexes is that they are hard to reproduce from a design perspective; we can use them as they are, but we want to create systems that serve our own purposes. By using some of the same tricks as nature, but in the context of a DNA structure that we can design precisely, we overcome this limitation, and enable the creation of light harvesting systems that efficiently transfer the energy of light where we want it.”

Yan’s lab has developed a way to use DNA to self-assemble structures that can serve as templates for assembling molecular complexes with almost unlimited control over size, shape and function. Using DNA architectures as a template, the researchers were able to aggregate dye molecules in structures that captured and transferred energy over tens of nanometers with an efficiency loss of less than 1% per nanometer. In this way the dye aggregates mimic the function of the chlorophyll-based antenna complex in natural photosynthesis by efficiently transferring light energy over long distances from the place where it is absorbed to the place where it will be used.

To further study biomimetic light harvesting complexes based on self-assembled dye-DNA nanostructures, Yan, Woodbury and Lin have received a grant from the Department of Energy. In previous work funded by the department, Yan and his team demonstrated the utility of DNA to serve as a programmable template for aggregating dyes. To build upon these findings, they will use the photonic principles that underlie natural light harvesting complexes to construct programmable structures based on DNA self-assembly, which provides the flexible platform necessary for the design and development of complex molecular photonic systems.

“It is great to see DNA can be programmed as a scaffolding template to mimic nature’s light harvesting antennae to transfer energy over this long distance,” Yan said. “This is a great demonstration of research outcome from a highly interdisciplinary team.”

The potential outcomes of this research could reveal new ways of capturing energy and transferring it over longer distances without net loss. In turn, the impact from this research could lead the way to designing more efficient energy conversion systems that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

“I was delighted to participate in this research and to be able to build on some long-term work extended back to some very fruitful collaborations with scientists and engineers at Eastman Kodak and the University of Rochester,” said David G. Whitten of the University of New Mexico, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “This research included using their cyanines to form aggregated assemblies where long range energy transfer between a donor cyanine aggregate and an acceptor occurs.”

The work reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society was performed by ASU students Xu Zhou and Sarthak Mandal, now of the National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirappalli, India, and Su Lin of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at the Biodesign Institute, and Whitten’s student Jianzhong Yang in collaboration along with Yan and Woodbury.

The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. 

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