Columbia Entrepreneurs Win Seed Funding at Millard Chan ‘99 Tech Challenge

Columbia alumnus Millard Chan advises budding entrepreneurs to “Find cofounders, team members, and advisors along the way” at the recent pitch event hosted by Columbia Engineering.

Apr 28 2023 | By Beatrice Mhando | Photo Credit: Sirin Samman
Millard Chan '99 Tech Challenge Engineering for Humanity Award first place winner Demetra Mallios presenting

Columbia Engineering alum, Demetra Mallios pitches her ed-tech health startup, Puberry. The app ties for first place in the competition's Engineering for Humanity Award. Credit: Sirin Samman

When Millard Chan graduated from Columbia Business School in 1999, entrepreneurship looked a lot different than it does today. After a successful and eventful career in investment banking and corporate finance, Chan found his way to entrepreneurship by co-founding two startups in the DNA sequencing space. Two acquisition exits and many years later, Chan continues to support, invest in, and coach Columbia entrepreneurs, funding the Millard Chan '99 Technology Challenge competition that recognizes start-ups for their solid foundation of applied, solution-focused, and technological innovation.

Participants of this challenge, held Apr. 12 at the Innovation Hub, received not just funding, but valuable advice and mentorship from alumni, underscoring the significance of fostering student-alumni entrepreneur connections and support at every step of the way.

“As a founder, it’s a very difficult journey, and you can’t do it on your own,” Chan said at the recent event to an audience of students, alumni, and industry partners. “Find supporters. Find cofounders, team members, and advisors along the way.”

Computing software startup, Qlassic, took first place in the Millard Chan ‘99 Technology Challenge, with Sourceable and Puberry each tying for first place for the event’s second prize, the Engineering for Humanity Award. 

The challenge, hosted by Columbia Engineering, is one in a series of business-plan competitions under the Columbia Venture Competition

Millard Chan ‘99 Technology Challenge Award

The Millard Chan ‘99 Technology Challenge Award recognizes businesses that possess a strong technological foundation that has promise of innovating the industry. 

First Place ($25,000): Qlassic

Qlassic team leads Yipeng Huang and Wei Tang presenting

Credit: Sirin Samman

Team Leads: Yipeng Huang SEAS’11, GSAS’18 and Wei Tang (Princeton University)
A hybrid quantum and classical computing software platform

Quantum computing algorithms are powerful and promising technologies that still face challenges when executed. “Quantum researchers have two existing solutions to run a quantum algorithm,” said Wei Tang. “First, run the entire algorithm on a real quantum processing unit (QPU) offered by a quantum hardware provider, such as IBM, Amazon, Google. However, this solution requires demanding quantum computing resources in terms of QPU size and quality. On the other hand, the only alternative is to simulate the quantum algorithm with classical resources. However, the difficulty of classical simulation scales exponentially, and thus simulation is only good for small-scale sanity checks.” 

Qlassic has proposed a third solution: a full-process toolchain that combines classical and quantum computing, all in one software platform. “Our product combines both [solutions] and runs orders of magnitude faster than classical simulations, and requires more than two times less quantum resources. Such capabilities speed up the ability for companies to investigate and integrate quantum computing into their computing infrastructure.”

On top of winning the Millard Chan Technology award, Qlassic has tested their product with IBM, one of the leaders in quantum computing, and they’ve done this all while still in the early stages of development.

Second Place ($15,000): Surplex

Surplex team leads Axl Chen and Nader Karayanni presenting

Credit: Sirin Samman

Team Leads: Axl Chen SEAS’23 and Nader Karayanni SEAS'23
Seamless movement in the virtual world

Current virtual reality (VR) hardware is limited in its motion tracking which inhibits immersion within VR. “Current solutions are super inconvenient and stationary, significantly deterring the VR experience,” said Axl Chen. “Our solution is the only fully mobile, plug-and-play, and drift-proof body-tracking accessory for VR.” 

Surplex VR full-body tracking shoes on feet

Surplex uses a combination of sensing technology and artificial intelligence to create a pair of full-body tracking shoes, providing users with a seamless experience that allows them to interact in their virtual environment with little to no struggle. 

As VR expands beyond entertainment, Surplex envisions various industries benefiting from seamless and accurate full-body motion capturing, such as sports and medical analysis. Focusing on novel sensing technologies and their combination with AI, Surplex envisions a future where smart sensing devices like their shoes are ubiquitous and empower people in various industries.

Surplex has sold over 300 units of their product and formed a partnership with three VR companies with hopes to enhance the user experience utilizing Surplex.

Third Place ($10,000): KRIASH

Kriash team lead Neetika Ashwani accepting their $10,000 third place award

Credit: Sirin Samman

Team Lead: Neetika Ashwani, MD MPH’22
Improve adherence of skin-to-skin contact in premature-babies

Premature babies pose a mountain of issues once born, issues that could lead to decreased maternal-child bond, longer hospital stays, higher costs to the families, and increased mortality. An evidence-based practice, called Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), also known as skin-to-skin contact, is an equitable beneficial practice proven to facilitate positive health outcomes for premature infants, who are at risk for long-term health effects. However, KMC compliance is lower in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) as the infant needs constant monitoring by healthcare professionals through wires attached to their skin, making it hard for mothers to hold their babies without disturbing these vital measurements.

KRIASH aims to provide a device that monitors the vitals of premature infants while giving mothers the freedom to implement these KMC methods under the supervision of a healthcare facility. This will promote skin-to-skin contact and have a reduction effort on maternal complications, cost and neonatal mortality and morbidity rates.

“KRIASH`s device will provide visibility into the duration of KMC, support WHO guidelines with viable and quantifiable data, and allow better decision-making for the health and outcomes of premature babies,” said Neetika Ashwani. “We aim to give as many cuddles as we can and improve outcomes of every life we touch!”

KRIASH has a prototype with plans to pilot the device on adults, before moving on to testing on children. 

Engineering for Humanity Award

The Engineering for Humanity Award is given to entrepreneurs that demonstrate a passion for creating impact through their business. 

First Place ($10,000): Sourceable

Sourceable team leads Siddhant Kumar and Lena Arkawi accepting their $10,000 first place Engineering for Humanity Award

Credit: Sirin Samman

Team Leads: Siddhant Kumar SEAS‘22 and Lena Arkawi SIPA‘22
Real stories, from real people, in real-time

When a country is in crisis, accurate reporting is fundamentally important to ensure that people are educated with the correct information. However, the ease of manipulating data coupled with the rise of artificial intelligence has led to fabricated information, leading to growing distrust between the media and the public. Those that are looking for trusted sources of information–media outlets, journalists, and nonprofits–need access to verified information almost immediately, but current solutions don’t have the bandwidth for quick verification, a process that usually can take a few minutes to several months.

Sourceable goes one step further in data verification, providing support to citizen journalists that are reporting from areas of conflict and crisis. “Sourceable saves subscribers’ time and effort by providing access to verified data in real-time from trusted citizen journalists in places of conflict and crisis,” said Lena Arkawi. “The app utilizes blockchain technology, which ensures the metadata associated with the contents captured are immutable. We believe that our platform has the potential to make a significant impact on the world by restoring trust in the media and amplifying the local trusted voices.” 

The combination of empowered citizen journalists, advanced verification technology, and secured blockchain creates multiple layers of security and transparency to both subscribers and users, leading to accurate and verifiable information being utilized in real-time. 

Sourceable is currently in its second pilot project, testing more than 20 users in four countries–Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. During the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, coverage from their citizen journalists led to massive exposure on several major media platforms such as Business Insider and ABC News, as well as some journalists being hired short-term with outlets like The New York Times and 60 Minutes.

First Place ($10,000): Puberry

Team lead: Demetra Mallios SEAS‘22
We make learning about puberty fun!

When Demetra Mallios was 11 years old, she got her first period—on New Year’s Eve.  

“I remember crying, feeling embarrassed, and totally unprepared,” said Mallios.

About 44% of girls don’t know what is happening when they first get their period, with 20 million menstruators in the U.S. between the ages of 10-19 having similar negative experiences. 

Driven by her own personal experience, Mallios created Puberry, an interactive gamified app revolutionizing the way youth learn about health. The goal is to eliminate shame and embarrassment surrounding puberty by enabling youth to feel prepared, supported, and confident through a fun educational outlet, puberty kits, and additional resources. 

“The way youth are currently learning about their health is ineffective, inefficient, problematic, and costly,” said Mallios. “Traditional resources, such as books, haven’t evolved to meet students’ needs.”

Mallios says Puberry is like “DuoLingo for puberty,” offering users a curriculum via “interactive lessons, games and quizzes.” Users are able to practice self-awareness and emotional intelligence through quick, easy, and fun daily check-ins in the app as well.

Puberry is currently being piloted in three different Pennsylvania schools and will be integrated into the fourth to sixth grade health classes for the coming school year. Puberry is also launching a summer course campaign program. The startup hopes to integrate the program into additional schools and the app store,enabling them to serve more than 11,000 students by the end of 2023.

Second Place ($5,000): Döoda 

Döoda team leads Ali Abassi, Aziz Kaouech, and Omar Louzir accepting their $5,000 second place Engineering for Humanity Award

Credit: Sirin Samman

Team Leads: Ali Abassi, Aziz Kaouech, and Omar Louzir, Open Startup Tunisia
Little creatures for a more sustainable world

Feed, a form of ground nutrients fed to livestock, pets, and fish, is a valuable resource to ensure the meat we consume is safe, nutritious, and healthy. The current popular product, soy-based feed, is facing a global shortage that not only impacts production, leading to less nutritious feed, but impacts climate on a large scale.

Döoda, a Tunisian-based company, aims to solve the issue of food security and climate change by utilizing an alternative that already exists in nature: mealworms. These insects combat every issue that plagues the current solution, creating more nutritious feed in less time, less space, and fewer carbon emissions. 

“These tiny beetles only need two months and 2 kg of feed to produce the same quantity and quality of food,” says Aziz Kaoech. “They require 10 times less space and emit six times less greenhouse gas during their lifecycle!”

While still in the pre-seed process, the initial tests look promising. When testing Döoda’s product on chickens, the animals grew faster, appeared healthier, and preferred the mealworm-based feed over the traditional poultry feed. Dogs and cats also digested the insect-based protein better,  all while reducing the carbon and water consumption footprint. 

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