February 15, 2014
Three U-M pathologists who developed software that could improve cancer diagnosis and treatment have won a statewide entrepreneurship competition organized by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering.
Taking first place overall as well as in the health category of the Michigan Collegiate Innovation Prize on Friday was team GENOMENON. Members are Mark Kiel, a pathology resident in the Medical School, and pathology professors Dr. Megan Lim and Dr. Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson. The team received $40,000.
Beyond a simple contest, the prize was a unique three-month training program that helped inventors find markets for their technologies and develop their businesses. It utilized the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps curriculum and offered it to undergraduates for the first time.
"This program is exceptional," Kiel said. "We realized our technology had potential as a business, but we had no idea where we would start. The program has really illuminated the process for us. It's only been three months and we're already on the verge of producing a commercially viable product."
The researchers recognized a need to more quickly interpret genetic information — to find mutations among the 3 billion bits of DNA that make up a patient's genome. So they developed a software program that automates the process and focuses on what they call "clinically important mutations."
Today it takes a long time and a team of specialists to look at a piece of a cancerous tumor, for example, and determine whether it contains harmful genetic mutations. But having that information, the researchers said, helps them better determine the type of cancer, how advanced it is and what the most effective treatment might be.
"GENOMENON software essentially democratizes genome sequencing interpretation," Kiel said.
More than 81 teams applied to participate in the program from more than 16 colleges and universities across the state of Michigan. Twenty-three were chosen to enter. Judges named eight semi-finalists on Friday morning. Roughly half of participants were undergraduate students.
"We're training the future entrepreneurs from across the state in a common language and skill set for creating companies," said Doug Neal, an instructor in the program who is a co-founder of Ann Arbor venture capital firm Michigan eLab. Neal is also a former director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.
"Nine out of ten start-ups fail," Neal said. "We think the skills these teams are learning in this program can change those odds."
Organizers say the program could also help keep talent in the state. Teams put down roots as they networked and reached out to more than 1,000 potential customers for market research.
"Today isn't the end of this program," said Amy Klinke, contest director and associate director of the CFE. "It's just the start. We hope that all of you, whether you won money today or not, continue to reach out to your mentors, to the Center for Entrepreneurship and to the resources in the state and continue to grow. If you look at the most successful companies, it's about tenacity, and you've already shown it by what you've done."
Judges awarded more than $100,000 in prizes. The winner of the Michigan Energy Institute prize was team Black Pine, of Michigan State University, which aims to increase the efficiency of geothermal power.
The Wayne State University team DragAroundMe won the Web/IT prize. DragAroundMe came up with a quick way to share documents with crowds of people in your immediate vicinity.
Best Product went to U-M's Berry Logistics, which developed a sensor to track when consumer goods are mishandled during shipping and handling.
And team Fluition from Grand Valley State University won the MASCO undergraduate prize. Fluition is developing a device that helps hospital patients move from sitting on the edge of a bed to standing.
Team GENOMENON received support from U-M's Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization for Life Sciences Program program.