When Michael Wells had an idea for a healthcare startup when he was a University of Pittsburgh student, he didn’t know where to go for help within the University to move it forward. For the past seven years, the successful healthcare investor and entrepreneur has helped accelerate the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt through the Michael G. Wells Competition to ensure that any student with such an idea has access to resources and support to take it all the way. Also, Laurie Kuzneski, together with her husband Andy, created the Kuzneski Innovation Cup. In its second year, the competition assists Pitt innovators with non-healthcare ideas. Both competitions’ judges agreed that choosing this year’s winners was very difficult due to the quality of all the nominees’ presentations.
The top prize of $20,000 for the Wells Competition went to Esophagel, which is developing an extracellular matrix hydrogel that can be delivered to the esophagus to control inflammation and promote tissue remodeling in patient’s suffering from Barrett’s esophagus. The team was previously a winner of the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) competition and is led by postdoctoral fellow Juan Diego Naranjo, PhD, and PhD candidate Lindsey Saldin. The technology is from the lab of Stephen Badylak, DVM, PhD, MD, deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who holds over 60 U.S. patents.
In the Kuzneski Innovation Cup competition, the top prize of $15,000 went to PneuMobility, out of Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Lab, led by McGowan Institute affiliated faculty member Rory Cooper, PhD. They have developed PneuChair, a wheelchair powered with compressed air that is lighter than electric-powered chairs and is waterproof. Four of the chairs were built for Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park for the disabled in Texas that includes a water park. The student innovator, PhD candidate Brandon Daveler, said there is significant investor interest in the PneuChair. “Seeing the impact that this innovation has already made, seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces who couldn’t previously enjoy a water park on their own, makes us even more determined to reach more people,” Mr. Daveler said.