Engineers Take Home Top Prizes in Startup Competition

Entrepreneurs shared in the $300,000 prize pool at this year’s Columbia Venture Competition

Aug 12 2021 | By Jesse Adams
Jacob Nye and Bina Bansinath

Biomedical engineers Bina Bansinath ’20GS (left) and Jacob Nye BS’18SEAS MS’20SEAS, a PhD candidate, took home first place in the Columbia Venture Competition Technology Challenge for their platform Colonai, which uses AI-driven imaging to detect colorectal cancers.

From computer scientists to biomedical engineers, from delivering packages to delivering vaccines, this spring’s Columbia Venture Competition drew a diverse crop of innovators and entrepreneurs facing off for a share of the $300,000 prize pool. Teams pitched their startups to judges across six different interdisciplinary tracks before the top winners vied for ultimate bragging rights in the Tournament of Champions.

Columbia Engineering sponsored the Technology Challenge, geared at boosting solution-focused young companies with compelling designs and promising product development. A wide range of teams competed in initial rounds early in the semester, with seven contenders making it to the finals this spring.

Winning first place and $25,000 for a platform using AI-driven imaging to detect colorectal cancers was Colonai, a software company from biomedical engineers Bina Bansinath ’20GS and Jacob Nye BS’18SEAS MS’20SEAS, currently a PhD candidate. They’ve developed three products designed to seamlessly assist gastroenterologists.

“We’ve always been interested in utilizing our skills to solve a multitude of problems to help provide equitable, accessible and effective healthcare approaches.” Nye says. “We’ll use the prize towards funding our trials, and in the imminent future we hope to grow our team, expand our dataset and work with our clinical partners in Texas and New York City.”

Taking second and $15,000 was Sharper Sense, a neuromodulation company spun out of Professor Qi Wang’s Laboratory for Neural Engineering and Control. Founder and CEO Charles Rodenkirch PhD’19SEAS is leading a team commercializing a noninvasive nerve stimulation patch activating neural circuitry in the brain that suppresses noise and enhances sensory processing including vision, hearing, and touch.

Our research came out of a [Columbia] biomedical engineering lab, our original IP was protected by Columbia Technology Ventures, we were founded in Columbia’s BiomedX accelerator, and today we operate out of the Columbia Startup Lab.

Charles Rodenkirch PhD’19SEAS
Sharper Sense, founder and CEO

He says the university has been a huge help each step of the way: “Our research came out of a biomedical engineering lab, our original IP was protected by Columbia Technology Ventures, we were founded in Columbia’s BiomedX accelerator, and today we operate out of the Columbia Startup Lab,” Rodenkirch notes. The company, also selected for New York City’s HealthTech Entrepreneurship Lab and Comcast NBCUniversal’s SportsTech Accelerator, is set to begin testing soon.

Earning third and $10,000 was Cold Chain-ge from Anuva Banwasi BS’24SEAS, Madeline Meier BS’21SEAS, Laura Torre BS’24SEAS, and Amy Wang BS’24SEAS, who are working on orally-dissolving films to contain vaccines at room temperature and thus eliminate the need for refrigeration and sterile injections. Next up, the team will use their winnings to perform clinical tests.

Fellow competitors included Medisure.ai, an online service helping navigate health insurance, and n*gram health, a digital diagnostic and therapeutic for cognitive decline. Also in the mix were a team each from Morocco and Tunisia, winners of local startup competitions. Morocco-based InAtlantis is a platform enabling group language instruction and practice, while Tunisia-based Skills21 offers a 21-day tech bootcamp to aspiring entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa.

In partnership with the Columbia Global Center in Mumbai and the RMZ Foundation, Columbia Engineering also co-sponsored the Urban Works India Challenge, devoted to fostering versatile tech-based solutions transforming rapidly-growing Indian cities into safer and more sustainable work environments.

A tech-driven delivery company for the last mile of service in urban areas across India, DeliverE garnered first place and $25,000 for their concept implementing an app-coordinated fleet of electric vehicles to enable more efficient e-commerce for meals, groceries and various goods. The team, including Abhirat Shinde MS’21SEAS, Sarvadnya Kulkarni MS’21SEAS, Ayush Sharma BS’21SEAS, Soumya Agrawal MS’21SEAS, Vani Jain MS’21SEAS, and Megha Sharma MS’21SEAS, hopes to enhance local economies while helping preserve the environment.

Anuva Banwasi, Madeline Meier, Laura Torre, and Amy Wang

Anuva Banwasi, Madeline Meier, Laura Torre, and Amy Wang took home third place for their project on orally-dissolving films to contain vaccines at room temperature and thus eliminate the need for refrigeration and sterile injections.

“None of us had ever competed in a challenge like this before,” Shinde says. “Evaluating other teams and learning best practices, we learned how to pitch effectively and succinctly.”

Receiving second place and $10,000 was EmNet from computer scientists Nikhilesh Belulkar BS’23SEAS, Anushka Gupta BS’24SEAS, Preethi Prakesh BS’24SEAS, and Shruti Verma BS’23SEAS. Inspired by lengthy wait times for ambulances that can average three to six hours or more, the company is developing a service that alerts and connects local trained responders to provide immediate aid to emergency patients until an ambulance can arrive.

Columbia engineers also made strong showings across the rest of the competition, including Amity from computer scientists Havi Nguyen BS’22SEAS and Rennah Weng BS’22SEAS taking first place and $25,000 in the Undergraduate Challenge sponsored by Bain Capital and the Columbia Organization of Rising Engineers. Formerly known as Neutria Health, Amity is a platform offering anonymized support to sufferers of eating disorders.

“Rennah and I came to Columbia without any entrepreneurial experience or background,” Nguyen says. “We’ve been able to work with and learn from phenomenal student founders and mentors through all the entrepreneurial learning opportunities Columbia provides.”

In the end, the winner of the competition’s first-time ever Tournament of Champions was Local Civics, an AI-powered civic education program from Beverly Leon ’14CC ’20BS.

Kulkami Sarvadnya and Abhirat Shinde

Kulkami Sarvadnya and Abhirat Shinde garnered first place for their team's project implementing an app-coordinated fleet of electric vehicles to enable more efficient e-commerce for meals, groceries and various goods.