UChicago startups win funding

By Dagny Vaughn

Four University startups, ranging in focus from healthcare to education to computer technology, recently received a total of $406,000 in funding from the University Innovation Fund, which supports University-affiliated projects. The University Innovation Fund is part of the Chicago Innovation Exchange in conjunction with UChicagoTech and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Booth School of Business.

The fund is designed to “help bridge the gap between basic research funding and commercial investment,” according to Jason Pariso, the Director of Operations for the University of Chicago Innovation Fund. Essentially, the fund enables University research, allowing projects to expand beyond labs and into communities.

Two of the selected startups aim to further research in the field of education.

The Becoming Effective Learners Project has developed a survey to study how non-cognitive factors impact a student’s learning. The survey will help collect data about how these factors work together and how they affect learning in different classroom settings, according to Camille Farrington, a researcher for the project.

“The ultimate goals of the project are to research basic knowledge and to provide data back to schools to help them learn ways to improve,” Farrington said. The group will use the funding to help expand and update the survey platform.

MyPath Planning Wizard is a program that helps teachers build a curriculum that fits the needs of their classes. “We noticed that when a math textbook is published digitally, nothing really is improved. This curriculum we are designing will give teachers more feedback about the lesson they are teaching and how it is impacting the students,” Meg Bates, a member of the MyPath Planning Wizard group, said. “For example, if a teacher has to delete a lesson from their plan, the program will give feedback on how it will impact the students.” With the funding, the group plans to develop a prototype to test in classrooms, beginning in Chicago schools.

The other two projects focus on research in health care and computer technology.

Researchers from the University’s Department of Medicine are working on a treatment for hypertriglyceridemia, a condition linked to coronary artery disease, diabetes, and pancreatitis. “We are working on a peptide-based treatment strategy to stimulate the triglyceride (TG) hydrolytic activity of lipases in the body, which regulate blood TG levels,” John Ancsin, a leader of the research team, wrote in an e-mail. The group plans to use the money award to test the efficacy of lead peptide agents in lowering plasma TG in mice models of hypertriglyceridemia, according to Ancsin.

Parallel.Works is a project dedicated to developing technology for scientific and technical computing. The technology will enable complex and compute-intensive modeling, simulation, and analytic workflows to be performed on parallel computing systems, according to an overview written by Pariso. The Parallel.Works researchers were unavailable for comment on their project or their intentions for the funding.

The projects that received funding were picked after a rigorous selection process.

“Fund recipients have been vetted through an in-depth process, which helps the committee determine which teams and technologies merit investment,” Pariso wrote in an e-mail.

Projects wishing to be funded must be affiliated with the University and first submit a pre-proposal, which is then reviewed by a committee of entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts. After receiving support from Innovation Fund associates who help screen, research, and support the projects, the ideas are once again presented with a specific use for the requested funding. Finally, the remaining teams are evaluated for potential to move toward the marketplace.

The Becoming Effective Learners received $151,000, Parallel.Works received $120,000, MyPath Planning Wizard received $100,000, and the researchers from the Department of Medicine received $35,000.

“Each of these four teams has a unique technology in an evolving industry with a strong team ready to take their research to the stage,” Pariso said. “They were chosen because we believe their technology has the potential to have a large impact in its field.”

The four UChicago startups that were finally selected for the Fall 2014 cycle will join more than 30 projects previously invested in by the Fund.