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Innovation Challenge Awards More Than $55,000 in Prize Money

On April 17, FACTbase, a team of students, alumni, and faculty  entrepreneurs marketing a new technology that will save the oil industry and climate scientists time and money, won the grand prize of $25,000 at the seventh annual University of Massachusetts Innovation Challenge. Plate Technologies, which delivers precision instrumentation for rapid success of biological-cell-culture-based experiments, won $14,000 at the event, while Sweet Seat, pitching a premium bicycle seat that delivers comfort through design, took home $8,000. Not to be outdone, Sneakers for Success, a non-profit organization which uses the so-called “sneaker culture” of urban lifestyle to motivate under-privileged youth toward academic success, won three prizes totaling $8,250.

Those Sneakers for Success awards included the Audience Choice Prize, chosen via a poll of the spectators, and the first annual David Wolf Prize of $5,000, sponsored by the intellectual property law firm of Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks, P.C. The Wolf Prize honors UMass Amherst alumnus David Wolf, entering his sixth decade as an intellectual property lawyer with the firm his father, Ezekiel Wolf, founded in 1927.

“We are pleased to award the first David Wolf prize to a team that epitomizes values that have always been important to David,” said shareholder Edmund J. Walsh of Wolf Greenfield, a UMass Innovation Challenge Founding Platinum Sponsor, “UMass, entrepreneurship, and a spirit of caring.”

Since 2005, the UMass Innovation Challenge has provided more than $467,000 in awards to 40 different student-led teams. It is designed to help current students and young alumni who have innovative business ideas to develop business plans and move products closer to market.

The grand-prize-winning FACTbase team features a technology that makes oil exploration and climate science faster, cheaper, and easier by aiding microfossil identification and data collection. The team includes: Serena Dameron of Kailua, Hawaii, a graduate student in Geosciences; Andy Fraass of Ann Arbor, Mich., a graduate student in Geosciences; Chris Lowery of Chesterfield, Mass., a graduate student in Geosciences; Kendra Clark of  Westborough, Mass., a 2004 Geology alumna; Steve Nathan of Amherst, a1995 Physics alumnus, who also earned his M.S. in Geology here in 1999 and Ph.D. in Geosciences in 2005; and Alumnus Jonathan Leachman of West Springfield, a 2005 Math alumnus. The faculty mentor is R. Mark Leckie, a Professor and Department Head of Geosciences.

Award-winner Plate Technologies will improve precision and outcome of cell culture assays by removing microplate’s basic handling and operational errors. The team is made up of Sangram S. Parelkar of Mumbai, India, a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Polymer Science & Engineering, and his faculty mentor, Lawrence Schwartz, Isenberg Professor of Integrative Science and Professor of Biology.

Imagine a trampoline bike seat that causes no pain. That’s award-winner Sweet Seat, whose brain trust includes Leona Chan of Weston, Mass., an undergraduate biology student, and John Woodward of Saugus, Mass., an undergraduate mechanical engineering student. Their faculty mentor is Sundar Krishnamurty, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Sneakers for Success uses elements of sneaker culture to engage, inspire, and empower underrepresented youth toward academic success, and its mastermind is Samuel Del Pilar of  Flushing, N.Y., an undergraduate mechanical engineering major.

"The entire Innovation Challenge allowed me to meet great mentors who I see myself working with beyond my time at UMass in building the Sneakers for Success organization,” said Del Pilar. “The prize money will give us the opportunity to work with education professionals in developing the curriculum that will then be used for our full program, which is planned for the fall."

Other members of Del Pilar’s team include: Joshua Hernandez, a 2011 alumnus in in Sports Management from New York City; Abigail Richardson from Roslindale, Mass., an undergraduate marketing student; Daniela Sanchez from Roxbury, Mass., an undergraduate student in Microbiology; Harmonie Charland of Lawrence, Mass., an undergraduate student in Journalism; and Jose Cotto from Worcester, a B.F.A. in Architecture. The faculty/staff mentors are Joseph Hamill, Professor of Kinesiology, and Shelly Perdomo, Director of CMASS.

“Like every good entrepreneurial effort, each year we strive for a stronger Innovation Challenge. This year has been one of exciting growth,” said Michael Malone, the Ronnie and Eugene Isenberg Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement. “Our new MinutePitch events attracted participation from more students than ever before. It is especially gratifying to see this great campus-wide participation from many disciplines carry through to this evening's outstanding student teams; it is their passion, expertise, and appetite for innovation that was the foundation of an exceptional final competition.”

The Innovation Challenge is an initiative of the Isenberg Program for the Integration of Management, Engineering, and Science, which is a cross-campus collaboration among the College of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, the Isenberg School of Management, and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement.

The Innovation Challenge is supported entirely with private funds donated by Eugene M. and Ronnie Isenberg and the following sponsors: Wolf Greenfield; Saint-Gobain; Joseph Bohan; Cantor Colburn LLP; CISCO; Raytheon; Vistagy; Wayne Boulais ‘85, ‘88; Stephen Dunne ‘89; Provenance Venture Partners; Michael Tunstall ’82, and Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting.

“As a five-year sponsor of the UMass Innovation Challenge, we at  Saint-Gobain have been enthused to see the significant progress in the entrepreneurship on campus,” said Michael Mahoney, manager of North America Saint-Gobain External Venturing. “Five years ago, we were happy to see a couple of good business plans based on technology ideas. This year, we  struggle to choose the best among almost a dozen new technologies and  plans. It's a great, enjoyable struggle.” (April 2012)