Arizona State University neurotech experts help lead workshop

ASU is home to world-class neurotechnology faculty, some of whom participated in the workshop. 

James Abbas, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is an expert in medical rehabilitation neural engineering techniques and technology and served as one of the workshop’s pitch presentation judges. 

William “Jamie” Tyler, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is highly active in entrepreneurial activities in the Phoenix metro area and mentored student teams at the workshop. At ASU, he develops noninvasive neuromodulation methods for brain health and human performance. 

Marco Santello, professor and director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools, welcomed participating students and professionals to the event. Santello is an expert in neural control of movement, sensorimotor learning, neuromodulation, neuroimaging and prosthetics. 

Hands-on learning builds skills

The student participants were selected from a wide range of backgrounds and experience levels, and each brought their own diverse representation to their teams. Each team of three was randomly assigned a sample product to use for their investor pitches to keep the workshop focused on applying lessons learned.

Not only was the workshop for students, it was also planned and executed by students. 

Student organizers, including Hool, designed the pitch competition, developed the products the teams would be given, moderated panel discussions and shared their own experiences as young entrepreneurs.

Simone Rodriguez, an MBA and mechanical engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh, suggested topics for the workshop based on her experience in business school. These topics included commercialization of research, funding opportunities and business development. 

Students also met with mentors who represented a range of professions, including researchers, startup founders, nanotechnology industry executives, governmental employees and investors. Together, they discussed topics from stakeholder analysis and value proposition to ethics and pitching.

The three-day experience culminated with the development of a funding pitch a panel of judges. The teams were scored on the execution of their product value proposition, stakeholder analysis, market opportunity, competitive analysis advantage, go-to-market strategy, ethical considerations and presentation skills.

First place went to Jesus Cruz-Garza, University of Houston, Sharena Rice, University of Michigan, Yannick Roy, Université de Montréal, for their product pitch of a gaming system that utilizes eye-tracking computational methods for dyslexia rehabilitation.

ASU student Justin Tanner and his teammates Florencia Garro, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, and Siddharth Nair, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, earned second place. Together they worked on a pitch for intracranial implants designed to relieve episodes for people with epilepsy.

In third place were Kai Yu, University of Minnesota, Noelle Jacobsen, University of Florida, and Kramay Patel, University of Toronto, who developed a pitch around neurostimulation technology for people with mental illnesses.

Each team was given feedback from the judges on what real investors would have liked and what might discourage investors from funding a product.

A valuable experience for entrepreneurial students

Kassondra Hickey, an ASU biomedical engineering graduate student who studies traumatic brain injury repair, was one of three graduate students from the host university to participate in the workshop. She was tasked with pitching a haptic robotic-assisted surgical device with team members Mehran Talebinejad, University of Ottawa, and Pablo Tostado Marcos, University of San Diego/Imperial College London.

“This was really challenging but exciting because it was so different,” Hickey said. “It empowered me to think, ‘If I can pitch a robot, I can pitch my expertise too.’”

Hickey says she found the workshop sessions to be immensely helpful, as she had never found useful resources on topics such as the avenues of raising funds, the different types of investors, realistic asks for seed finding and the stages and timeline of starting a business.

One of the most helpful parts of the workshop was near the start: an icebreaker where she had to pitch a random item revealed to her on the spot to the rest of the participants.

“It was scary but it helped me let go of my nerves and feel vulnerable, which you will be forced to do in many tough situations in life,” Hickey said.

The nerves carried over to their final presentation on their product, as they only had hours to come up with their pitch — unlike weeks or months as Hickey was used to.

Even with some technical difficulties and the short time to prepare, Hickey says it was a good experience.

“I surprised myself with my ability to push through and give a strong pitch with confidence,” Hickey said. “I was really out of my comfort zone, but I did it and I think that will only make things easier for me in the future.”

Hickey also enjoyed meeting and working with other graduate students who were interested in entrepreneurship.

“I felt really justified in my career goals knowing that there are other students in the same spot as me striving for the ambitious space of startup business,” Hickey said. “I feel that we can all support each other and learn from one another moving forward.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering