Logo: University of Southern California

The Final Three

Three Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) teams remain in the business plan competition vying for the $50,000 grand prize.
By: Marc Ballon
April 07, 2015 —

Nestor Cabrera-Munoz of RadioSon (left)  makes his presentation at the April 2 MEPC competition. Photo by Michelle Park.
Nestor Cabrera-Munoz believes he and his collaborators have come up with a faster, safer and easier way for vascular surgeons to navigate through blood vessels to treat peripheral arterial disease, which affects more than 17 million Americans, claims 75,000 lives annually and results in 100,000 leg amputations.

The biomedical engineering doctoral student, standing before a capacity crowd at the April 2 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) finals, said that existing methods often result in plaque breaking off and other complications. That’s because current imaging technologies typically provide surgeons with only a “panoramic” view of blood vessels rather than a detailed interior look. Even technologies capable of peering inside the vessels “fall short,” Cabrera-Munoz added, as they often produce incomplete images.

Cabrera-Munoz, co-founder Payam Eliahoo — also a USC Viterbi biomedical engineering Ph.D. student — and other members of RadioSon Corporation, hope to change that. The interdisciplinary team of engineers and physicians has created a forward-looking, intravascular ultrasound-imaging catheter that can see into blood vessels and capture the complete picture.

“Our technology gets rid of the blind spots and helps surgeons reach places of treatment without causing adverse events such as embolism,” Cabrera-Munoz said.

His pitch resonated with MEPC judges. They chose RadioSon as one of the three remaining teams vying for the competition’s $50,000 grand prize.

Other finalists include:
Brain Injury Research Strategies, Inc. (BIRS): BIRS is developing a portable hardware and software platform capable of delivering a five-minute concussion assessment test that uses eye tracking to measure neurocognitive health. The device is comprised of an eye-tracking camera, a tablet and software. In the U.S., athletes suffer an estimated 300,000 concussions every year.
• AesculaTech Inc.: AesculaTech has developed AesculaGel, a sustained drug delivery platform comprised of a thermo responsive hydrogel, primarily for the treatment of glaucoma. By delivering medication to the ocular surface continuously for 90 days, AesculaGel ensures better patient compliance than eye drops and other existing treatments. Glaucoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, affects more than 2.8 million people in the U.S. Aescula also won the 2015 Mentor's Choice Award.

Other winners:
Fourth Place
Moving Analytics Inc.: The company develops smartphone-based digital therapies for chronic disease management. Its first product, Movn, is a tele-health platform for cardiac rehabilitation.

MEPC’s Growing Excellence
“I think the quality of all the teams has improved every year,” said Fariborz Maseeh, MEPC’s namesake who started the competition with a $1 million endowment. “This is way beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”

This year’s competition had a record 50 teams competing for 16 spots. That number was whittled down to eight semifinalists and now three finalists. The MEPC winner will be crowned at the Viterbi Awards on the evening of April 16.

The competition offers a total $150,000 in prize money and services.

For the first time, each MEPC team received a $2,500 grant to canvass potential customers around the country to learn their needs, concerns and how they might address them. Those conversations helped teams better refine their proposals and prototypes, said Peter Beerel, MEPC program director and USC Viterbi associate professor.

“There are no answers to finding a product market fit in your lab,” said Beerel, adding that the money came to USC through a National Science Foundation I-Corps regional site award.

MEPC teams also received invaluable education materials through the new USC-based NSF I-Corps node, which is aimed at fostering innovation throughout the United States by encouraging the translation of ideas and research beyond the laboratory.

Reflecting the growing importance of healthcare, the majority of MEPC squads hailed from that sector, including the three finalists.

BIRS, for instance, comes out of Health, Technology and Engineering (HTE@USC). This one-of-a-kind program that brings together USC Viterbi and Keck School of Medicine of USC students for up to four years with the goal of bringing to market a medical device or other products to improve healthcare.

“Our students are strongly encouraged to compete in the MEPC since it generously serves as a springboard by providing all finalists with activities and resources that will further propel their team’s efforts,” said HTE Administrative Director George Tolomiczenko.

Star Startups
MEPC has already produced some noteworthy companies.

ComfortCorrect, last year’s winner, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. The company hopes to go to clinical trials in the near future. The 2013 victor, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for sports’ insights. Its ten NBA clients include the Los Angeles Clippers. In January, the “Orange County Register” featured 2011 winner Abtum in a cover story about startups moving into a prestigious new buinsess incubator in Irvine. The company makes a tunable RF duplexer for mobile handsets that offers significant performance and cost improvements for LTE-enabled products.

MEPC, along with HTE and the new NSF-sponsored I-Corps Node, is part of USC Viterbi’s growing strength in and commitment to high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship. Other examples include the Viterbi Startup Garage (VSG), which helps incubate startups created by USC Viterbi students; and the new Hacker House, which brings student-entrepreneurs into a creative space and provides them resources and mentoring to build their products.

“We are positioning USC Viterbi as a leader in tech creativity and creation in Southern California and beyond,” Dean Yannis Yortsos said.

The other MEPC semifinalists include:

SafeNet, the maker of personal safety devices that can send out distress signals
DREG Medical, creator of a medical device to treat GERD
Stasis Labs, the maker of a low-cost medical monitoring system for the developing world
GetNFitN, the maker of a software platform to manage dental appointments more efficiently to maximize revenue