image title

Life-changing ventures win investment at ASU Demo Day competition

ASU students, alums win investment for life-changing startup ventures.
December 10, 2019

Entrepreneurs create solutions to big and small problems

Dozens of entrepreneurs in the Arizona State University community are working on life-changing startup ventures, and on Friday, several were rewarded with thousands of dollars in investment capital at the Demo Day pitch competition.

Some of the winning projects were:

• Emily Karlzen, a senior majoring in business entrepreneurship with a minor in construction management, invented a helmet for tourists to wear in space. Her company, Arch Rift, won $15,000 in the eSeed Challenge.

• Travis Witzke, an Army veteran and ASU alum, won $10,000 in the Ashton Family Venture Challenge for his company, Desert Valley Tech. Haunted by his experiences during deployment to Iraq, he invented a device to preserve whole blood on the battlefield to increase the chances of saving lives.

• Pauline Nalumansi, a graduate student in the Thunderbird School of Global Management, won $5,000 for the Pauline Foundation, a nonprofit she created to help empower at-risk youth in Uganda, her home country.

They were among 80 startups that won more than $150,000 in investment funding Friday through Venture Devils, a program in the office of Entrepreneurship and 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 six funding competitions at the event, held at SkySong in Scottsdale.

Some of the winners have already won investments from previous pitch competitions. EnKoat, a company that invented energy-efficient building coatings, was the biggest winner of the day with $20,000 from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, and also won $15,000 at Demo Day last spring. EnKoat’s co-founders, Aashay Arora and Matthew Aguayo, engineering doctoral students at ASU, were named to the Forbes “30 under 30” list earlier this month. ASU engineering alumni Kevin Hale and Grayson Allen developed GateSense, a technology that allows users to lock and unlock gates from anywhere through a mobile app. Their company, Halen, won $15,000 at Demo Day last year and then $10,000 on Friday

While pitching to the judges, several of the entrepreneurs shared how they learned hard lessons during the startup process. Ricky Johnson, an ASU alum, is CEO of Barrage Training Tech, and invented a pressure-sensitive sleeve that wraps around a punching bag so workouts can be done without a trainer. He described how he took the first prototype to some local boxing gyms for boxers to try out.

“It was horribly ugly and it had duct tape and hot glue on it and batteries were flying everywhere,” he said.

So Johnson, who earned a degree in computer engineering at ASU in 2017, spent months and a lot of money to refine his prototype, and on Friday, he won $3,000 in the Global Sport Venture Challenge competition.

Retail Devils, a new competition funded by Follett, awarded a total of $10,000 in seed grants to several ventures on Friday. The initiative was created earlier this year to ease the way for students to sell products at the Sun Devil Marketplace stores, according to Tracy Lea, assistant director of venture development in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU.

“A point of pride at ASU is our collaboration. So we started to think about how we unencumber the process. We lowered the barrier to entry,” said Lea, who added that two “pop-ups” have been held to sell students’ merchandise.

Another new funding competition this year is the Sarsam Family Venture Challenge, which awarded $15,000 in grants, including $10,000 to RIVIS Surgical, a startup that was created by a team of biomedical engineering students and aims to prevent medical complications.

A woman presents a business idea to investors

Senior Emily Karlzen pitches her space-helmet invention to the judges at Demo Day on Friday at SkySong. She won $15,000 in investment funding. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now








The winners will use the investment cash to create or refine prototypes, file for patents or market their startups. Karlzen has mockups of her positive-pressure space helmet but wants to use her winnings toward creating a functioning prototype. She is planning to sell her space-tourism helmet to space-suit manufacturers by 2022. Last month, Arch Rift won the NewSpace Business Plan Competition for space ventures in Texas.

“I’m a giant space nerd and I was concerned about the safety systems on commercial spacecraft,” she told the judges. “This is a good way of protecting people and making it comfortable and making it weigh less for the people launching the rockets. I want to make this industry a reality.”

Witzke, who invented the Hemaporter blood-preservation canister, said he’ll use his winnings to test his device in the field. Currently, whole blood must be kept between 33 and 40 degrees to be used on wounded people at remote locations, and current devices can only hold the temperature for 18 to 24 hours. The Hemaporter, which is set in a docking station, can keep whole blood chilled for 72 hours in temperatures over 100 degrees.

When Witzke was in Iraq, he frantically tended to a civilian who was shot in the face. The man died in the helicopter on the way to hospital.

“I always wonder if I could have done more to save his life,” he told the judges.

Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU, told the crowd that Entrepreneurship and Innovation has raised more than $25 million in the last four years to support the pitch competitions and other programs across the Valley.

“We hustle the same way you do. I know what it’s like to stand up and pitch,” she said.

“We believe in you and we believe in your ideas.”

Top image: ASU Thunderbird graduate student Pauline Nalumansi talks about her Pauline Foundation after winning $5,000 at the Fall 2019 ASU Venture Devils Demo Day pitch competition on Friday. She told the crowd: "I didn't know who I was until I came to America and to ASU, and now I'm helping to change the lives of students in Uganda." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


New ASU courses offer tools for engaging others in science

December 10, 2019

Roaring '20s-era physicist Ernest Rutherford is purported to have said, “It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid,” which is said to be the antecedent to Albert Einstein’s later proclamation: “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Clearly, the art of effectively sharing scientific knowledge has been a concern for generations. Even TV star Alan Alda thought it so important that he created his eponymous Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, saying, “We need to be more conversant with it because science is in our lives. It’s in everything. It’s in the food we eat. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s everywhere.” Science communication Two ASU courses have the goal of bridging the communication gap between scientists and the public. Credit: Tom Dunne Download Full Image

But, as a researcher grows in their field, so does their body of knowledge — knowledge that becomes increasingly inaccessible to others outside their own expertise. This is important not just for communicating science with the public, but also for communication among scientists who are engaged in interdisciplinary teams tackling complex problems.

Communicating for collaboration

For Athena Aktipis, a boundary-spanning psychologist-biologist, assistant professor in psychology and faculty at the Biodesign Institute, the challenge of learning to talk about her work has become an avid pursuit — one so important that she created a new graduate level class, “Communication for Scientists” (PSY 591). 

“It is really important that scientists can talk about their work with researchers in other disciplines and general audiences,” Aktipis said. “This allows us to leverage our collective knowledge to make progress on wickedly complex problems and engage the public in the excitement of making discoveries and solving problems.

“I’ve really become addicted to creating content that is both interesting to an academic audience and accessible to a general one,” she said.

Aktipis is the creator-producer and host of the increasingly popular podcast "Zombified," a program that New York Times best-selling author Barbara Natterson-Horowitz called “provocative, erudite and sometimes hysterically funny.” Aktipis is also the author of the forthcoming book from Princeton University Press, "The Cheating Cell: How evolution helps us understand and treat cancer," a highly interdisciplinary book that is both peer reviewed and aimed at the general reader. Steven Pinker described "The Cheating Cell" as “an engaging and insightful explanation of why we are cursed with this malady."

According to Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-disciplinary Collaboration, “cross-disciplinary collaborations have become an increasingly important part of science. They are seen as key if we are to find solutions to pressing, global-scale societal challenges, including green technologies, sustainable food production and drug development.”

Aktipis’ curriculum is intended for graduate students in the sciences who are looking to expand their repertoire of communication skills. The course is also open to others at the graduate and postdoc levels.

“Not only does sharing our knowledge help keep the public informed about what is happening in science, it also is a great opportunity for scientists to learn more about the way their work interfaces with real problems and challenges that people face,” she said.

Aktipis is so enthusiastic about the subject that she conjured up the courage to perform when she was invited to be a part of a science comedy night at the recent meeting of the National Association of Science Writers.

“I ended up having a lot of fun, and it made me think about other opportunities to use humor to engage people. When people are laughing, they are a lot more open to listening to what you have to say. We tend not to think about comedy as part of our tool kit as scientists, but maybe we should be rethinking that.”

Aktipis’ course will cover effective writing and presentations, poster communications and social media strategies. With her background in psychology, Aktipis will share information on the psychology of communications and how the human mind interacts with technology. Students will create their own academic website and learn how to communicate with “the NPR public.” “We will even talk about the opportunities and pitfalls of using humor in communicating about your work,” said Aktipis.

Communicating science to the public

Looking at the issue of science communications from another perspective, Charles Kazilek, chief technology innovation officer and research professional in the School of Life Sciences, and Karla Moeller, executive outreach coordinator in the Office of the University Provost, launched “Communicating Science to the Public” (BIO591) last year. Moeller explains that although their course is beneficial for scientists, its focus is on helping both scientists and nonscientists — teachers, journalists, writers and others — communicate with the public.

Kazilek and Moeller are the brains behind the highly popular Ask A Biologist website.

“Communicating Science to the Public” will cover science writing, podcast and video production, illustrations, infographics and more.

“When we communicate about research, we affect public perception of science in general, and we need to build trusting relationships with the public,” Kazilek said. “We want to help everyone understand why science is exciting and worth supporting, and we want them to understand the process of science and discovery.” 

“It's also important for nonscientists like journalists to be able to properly communicate science,” he said. “Science can be a tough subject for some to understand, and accurate and engaging reporting is so important to the process of learning about science.”

Moeller and Kazilek’s course will help students learn how to focus on engaging an audience, while maintaining science accuracy — often a challenge for nonscientists who write about science.

“By focusing on making scientists better storytellers — and helping journalists to improve their communications — we are building a more trusting relationship between scientists and the public,” said Moeller. “With the enormous challenges we are facing, especially with climate change and public health issues, it's important to maintain this relationship and to foster the public's interest and trust in science.”

Graduate students and upper division undergraduates in the sciences, communication, or science education are encouraged to register for the course.

Written by Dianne Price