Five innovative businesses created by University of Wyoming graduate students were named winners of the Fisher Innovation Launchpad this week. The five businesses will each receive seed funding from a $125,000 fund; office space in the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC) for one year; and business counseling.
The Fisher Innovation Launchpad, which began in 2016 as the Fisher Innovation Challenge, is for new, independent businesses — in the seed, startup or early-growth stages — focused on technology and/or innovation. The seed fund was made possible through the financial gift of Donne Fisher, the Launchpad’s namesake, and was matched by the UW Office of Research and Economic Development.
The WTBC, a business development program of UW that has business incubators in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, is administered by the UW Office of Research and Economic Development. The WTBC is a not-for-profit business incubator that provides entrepreneurs with the expertise, networks and tools necessary for success.
Ten teams made their presentations Oct. 23 in the Wyoming Union Ballroom.
“The commitment and ingenuity of these young entrepreneurs is inspiring,” says Ed Synakowski, vice president for the Office of Research and Economic Development. “The Fisher Innovation Launchpad program supports their creative energies with guidance from those with great experience in this arena. This experiential learning process, plus the resources provided, can be a great help in propelling them to be future business leaders for Wyoming.”
The five winning businesses are:
— Brass Genes, founded by Marcus Brock, a postdoctoral research associate in botany. This company has a concept for modifying a trait of a commercially important oil-seed plant to potentially dramatically enhance natural pollination. This would reduce the dependence on commercial beehives for increasing seed yield.
— CS3, founded by Behzad Reza Ahrabi, a staff scientist in mechanical engineering, and Dimitri Mavriplis, a professor in mechanical engineering. The product is a software package that is used for physical simulations. It has been primarily designed for compressible flow simulations over complex geometries. However, various components of this package can be used for many other applications.
— Deep Winter Games, of which Spencer Ollila, a senior from Laramie majoring in computer science, is one of the collaborators. The main vector for customers will be a tool set enabling multi-platform compatibility for small and independent game companies. This will allow them to offer similar functionality that larger game development companies have, without the significant overhead costs involved in developing a game for multiple platforms at once. Marketing of this toolset will be complimented by the further development on a cart-racing game, which will help fund the company in its early stages.
— TABI, of which Ph.D. ecology students Mallory Lai, of Denver; and Maya Gans, of Hollywood, Fla., are collaborators. The TABI product is probabilistic diagnostic software aimed at assisting general physicians in diagnosing and treating the most common autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The product will be a user-friendly app that uses statistical inference given patient data. Doctors will be able to input symptoms, laboratory tests and patient demographics into the software as a service platform to receive real-time probabilities regarding a Hashimoto’s diagnosis and patient response to treatment.
— VisibleFlow, of which collaborators include Ben Noren, a UW chemical engineering graduate student from Ironwood, Mich., and Leann Bentley, a recent UW graduate in marketing from Laramie. VisibleFlow aims to rapidly prototype complex microfluidic chips. A microfluidic chip is a stamp-size system that is used in many different industries, including biomedical, pharmaceutical, engineering and diagnostics. These microfluidic chips are popular because they enable better data quality, with less material and maximal ease of use. One of the drawbacks to microfluidic chips is that they are extremely difficult to make due to time-consuming manufacturing and the danger of harsh chemicals. VisibleFlow aims to change the paradigm of the microfluidic chip landscape by significantly simplifying the process while providing greater design complexity. VisibleFlow’s process is faster, safer and more environmentally sustainable.
Even though five businesses were named winners, all 10 companies plan to continue.
“All 10 of our Fisher cohorts this year are moving forward with their companies,” says Fred Schmechel, assistant director of UW’s WTBC. “We directly credit this to the creation of the Wyoming Business Council program, Kickstart Wyoming, and the possibility of follow-on funding, as well as the support of UW Vice President of Research and Economic Development Ed Synakowski and the direct support he has given us for making changes within the Laramie incubator.”
David Bohling, interim director of the WTBC, says Kickstart Wyoming has helped the teams realize that not being funded by the Fisher innovation Launchpad is not the end of the road for their business concepts.
“We wouldn’t have put them on the stage if we didn’t feel they had solid business concepts that should be explored further,” Bohling says. “This is a new program that came about in Senate File 118 that the ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) committee pushed for. The Kickstart program hasn’t awarded a dime to startup companies yet, and already has five that wouldn’t be in existence if it wasn’t for them.”
There are now 37 client companies housed in the WTBC incubator. This year’s Launchpad brings to 22 the number of companies created in the past three years. An informal survey conducted before the latest Pitch Day event showed that these Fisher companies have created approximately a dozen full- and part-time jobs in Laramie.
“The lesson here that we’ve learned is that some small strategic investments can have an amazing amount of impact on the number of startup companies that become viable in Wyoming,” Bohling says.