3 student-led startups earn NUtech, Engineering funding

Judges and participants pose for a group photo during the NUtech Ventures and College of Engineering pitch competition.
Judges and participants pose for a group photo during the NUtech Ventures and College of Engineering pitch competition.

Entrepreneurship is thriving at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as a number of undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Engineering proved at a recent pitch competition.

The competition, inaugurated in 2018 and co-sponsored by NUtech Ventures and the College of Engineering, requires that teams of up to five students solve an engineering problem. Judging is based on participants’ ability to identify an important problem, formulate a value proposition related to solving that problem, estimate market size and describe their business model.

Participants were given seven minutes to pitch their solutions to the competition’s judges: John Wirtz, co-founder and chief product officer for Hudl; Brad Roth, president and executive director for NUtech Ventures and associate vice chancellor for technology development at UNL, and Kathy Andersen, director of innovation and partnership for Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development. Judges had three minutes to ask follow-up questions of each contestant.

The competition featured awards for the top three teams, with the requirement to use all award money to further develop the business idea (travel, materials for prototypes, etc.).

First place, with a $3,000 prize, went to Beacon, a startup aiming to use American-made drones to perform safety inspections on bridges. The company was represented by co-founder Maci Wilson, a junior computer science major in the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management.

Wilson noted that U.S. bridges are mandated to be inspected at least once every two years, typically by an inspector in a harness or an inspector in a snooper vehicle. Beacon’s model uses an autonomous, non-GPS reliant, U.S.-built drone system to perform routine bridge inspections, a market that Wilson believes will grow to a $6.3 billion valuation by 2029.

Second place, with a $1,500 prize, went to PartShopAI, a computer-aided design team represented by Paul Owens, a junior mechanical engineering and computer science student at the Raikes School.

The 3D CAD market was $9.95 billion in 2021, and Owens estimates that makers and hobbyists without design proficiency can boost the category by an additional $2.5 billion.

Third place, with a $1,000 prize, went to Wearasense, which offers a healthcare wearable. The team was represented by Patrick McManigal, a graduate research assistant of smart materials and robotics and doctoral student in computer engineering, and Spencer Pak, a mechanical engineering doctoral student.

McManigal and Pak noted that the lightweight device detects clostridioides difficile bacteria, which is the most common health care associated infection. The bacteria were responsible for more than $1 billion in healthcare costs in 2017.

Prior to the competition, five event organizers — Zane Gernhart, senior technology manager for NUtech Ventures; Joy Eakin, entrepreneurship program manager for NUtech Ventures; Jessica Minnick, technology manager for NUtech Ventures; Eric Markvicka, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and Traci Williams Hancock, business operations and customer success director for the Scott Data Center — offered coaching to all contestants.

More details at: https://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/today/article/3-student-led-startups-earn-nutech-engineering-funding/