Creative solutions for food waste, water conservation and physical therapy impress judges at 3rd annual ASU pitch competition
Katherine Sizov wanted to save the apples. So she invented a device to detect exactly when they’re ripe and ready to be sold — a technology that could save millions of apples from spoilage every year.
On Friday, she won $100,000 for her invention in the ASU Innovation Open pitch competition at Arizona State University.
Sizov is founder and CEO of Strella Biotech and also a senior majoring in molecular biology and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Her invention is a biosensor that’s placed on the walls of the warehouse rooms where apples are stored, where it detects levels of ethylene gas, produced as the fruit ripens. The sensors are already being used by apple-packing companies, and Sizov said the $100,000 prize, which was donated by Avnet, will allow her team to make more of the devices.
“I like making tech that’s hands-on, and I think that’s the future of the world,” said Sizov, who also won $10,000 in services donated by Roambotics.
“Nature is smarter than us, and we can learn from it to do all sorts of awesome things.”
Strella Biotech was one of five teams in the final round of the ASU Innovation Open. They each won a $5,000 cash prize in the first round last fall from Zero Mass Water, one of the event sponsors and an ASU spinoff founded in 2015 by Cody Friesen, an associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
The other four finalists were:
• Soundskrit, which won second place and a $25,000 cash prize donated by ON Semiconductor. The company, founded by Sahil Gupta of McGill University, created a new kind of multidirectional microphone, which Gupta hopes to eventually sell to Apple for use in iPhones.
“Smartphones have evolved, but microphones haven’t,” Gupta told the judges. “The challenge is in shrinking the microphone, which decreases audio quality.
“But with a single microphone, we can listen in any direction without compromising on size, audio quality or direction.”
• Infinite Cooling, a water-capture technology invented by a team of undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. CEO Maher Damak told the judges that their system, which has been installed on the MIT campus, could save power plants more than a million dollars a year and help them use less water. The team met last week with administrators at Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant to discuss the technology.
• SoleMate Solutions, invented by students Surabhi Kalyan and Kristine Khieu from the University of California, San Diego. They created a shoe insole for people who are rehabilitating after orthopedic surgery. The medical device, which measures weight applied and provides real-time feedback, will undergo clinical trials this year. The goal is for the device to reduce recovery time and prevent complications.
• Cloud Agronomics, a remote-sensing technology created by students at Brown University that’s intended to reduce food waste by better predicting crop diseases. Their algorithm measures the light refracted from crops captured on ultrahigh-resolution images taken from planes to detect crop diseases long before the human eye can see them.
“The vision is for farmers to not wake up one morning and realize they lost their crops to a disease they can’t see but our sensors can,” said Jack Roswell, a mechanical engineering major at Brown and co-founder of the company.
This was the third ASU Innovation Open, and the first in which no teams from ASU made it to the finals.
“That feels like it’s negative, but it’s actually positive because it’s evidence of where this competition is headed,” Friesen said. “We had a crazy level of competition this year.”
Sizov said she was inspired to invent the ethylene-detection device when she heard that two out of every five apples harvested are wasted due to spoilage, which mostly happens during packing and distribution.
“Fruit is stored for a long period of time. The apples you buy at grocery store this week could be over a year old,” she said in her pitch to the judges.
Strella Biotech tested its devices with an apple packer in Washington state. On Jan. 5, the sensors detected an ethylene spike in one of the storage rooms.
“We told the client, ‘You should pull the fruit now.’ They were planning on pulling those apples in July,” she said. “We saved 4 million apples, which is really exciting.”
Two of the five finalist ventures were devoted to reducing food waste — a prime area for innovative entrepreneurial ideas, according to keynote speaker David Danielson, managing director of Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
“With food waste, there’s no silver bullet. It’s imperfect produce that’s thrown out, or spoilage on the way to the store or food left on your plate,” he said. “It’s day zero in this space.”
Other ASU Innovation Open sponsors include the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Arizona Board of Regents, with additional support from the ASU Entrepreneurship + Innovation program and the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.
“The Phoenix metropolitan area is quickly becoming a technology and entrepreneurship hub, and at the Fulton Schools, we’re excited to be one of the catalysts of this wave of innovation and creativity,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools.
“Through the ASU Innovation Open, we’re bolstering new ideas from ventures like Strella Biotech and the other competitors who are all on course to become the technology leaders of tomorrow.”
Top photo: Katherine Sizov (second from right) of the University of Pennsylvania poses with (from left) judge Cody Friesen and Avnet's MaryAnn Miller and Bill Amelio as well as Sparky after being named the grand-prize winner at the third annual ASU Innovation Open Final Demo Day on Friday at the Student Pavilion in Tempe. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now