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Innovative solutions to pressing social, scientific issues pitched at the annual IDEA Hub competition

5th annual IDEA Hub Pitch Contest flyer

On June 2, the UC Santa Cruz Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development (CIED) hosted the fifth annual IDEA Hub pitch competition, the largest UC Santa Cruz startup pitch contest of the year. The IDEA Hub is a campus-wide initiative for students, created to support innovation and entrepreneurship at UC Santa Cruz and to help spread awareness of the diverse spectrum of startup projects emerging from UCSC.

Applications for this year’s pitch contest were up by more than 50% and the total prize purse set a new UC Santa Cruz record of over $150,000. “This is the second year in a row that IDEA Hub has broken a significant record,” said UCSC Entrepreneur in Residence Mothusi Pahl.

Of the 23 teams that entered the quarter finals, four were selected to pitch their startups at the grand finale, judged by a panel of UC Santa Cruz alumni—all of whom are successful entrepreneurs and investors. Held virtually in conjunction with Santa Cruz Works, each team in the finals included at least one Baskin School of Engineering student. 

“IDEA Hub is UCSC’s big year-end pitch contest and demo day. These founding teams have worked hard to get to this point of unveiling, so it’s awesome to be able to support our students with the largest pitch contest prize purse in the University of California system,” said Pahl.

Winners of the top three 2021 IDEA Hub awards were:

  • First place ($15,000 prize)
    • weBLACK: Conscious social media putting people first
      • Jonathan Scott, UCSC Ph.D. student, computer science and engineering
      • Johnny Tilahun, UCSC undergraduate student, technology and information management
      • Ephrem Woldetensae, UCSC undergraduate student, business management economics
      • Danay Weldegabriel, UCSC EOP Stem Counselor
      • Dimitri Rose, University of South Florida undergraduate student, computer science
      • Ami Gonzalez, UCSC alumna and UX designer at Springboard 
  • Second place ($10,000 prize)
    • GenZ Genomics: Affordable and actionable diagnostics using novel targeted DNA sequencing
      • Balaji Sundararaman, UCSC Ph.D student in biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics
      • Advisors: Associate Professor of Biomolecular Engineering Ed Green and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Beth Shapiro
  • Third place ($8,000 award)
    • OrganOmics: Drug discovery rooted in precision medicine
      • John Selberg, UCSC Ph.D. candidate, electrical and computer engineering
      • Gary Mantalas, UCSC Ph.D. candidate, molecular, cell, and developmental biology
      • Spencer Seiler, UCSC Ph.D. student, bioengineering and bioinformatics
      • Sergio Cordero, UCSC alumnus and Stanford graduate student 
      • Advisors: Distinguished Professor of Biomolecular Engineering David Haussler and Rob Currie, chief enterprise architect at Anthem AI. 
weBLACK logo

weBLACK, a social media platform whose tagline is conscious social media putting people first, seeks to address many of the problems members of the Black community experience on social media—from misrepresentation and bias to widespread false information. A platform specifically tailored for the greater Black community, weBLACK’s objective is to empower Black voices and celebrate Black culture. weBLACK “positions itself as being inclusive while prioritizing and protecting Black voices,” said Johnny Tilahun, UCSC undergraduate student in technology and information management. weBLACK is on track to launch a beta version later this year.

GenZ Genomics was founded by Baskin Engineering graduate student Balaji Sundararaman, in partnership with his advisors Professors Ed Green and Beth Shapiro. The team seeks to reduce costs and increase the speed of DNA sequencing. GenZ Genomics provides affordable and actionable diagnostics using novel targeted DNA sequencing, cutting the costs of traditional sequencing by over 50% and reducing the processing time from 72 to 24 hours. In 2019, GenZ Genomics won Slug Tank, another UCSC student-based business pitch contest. They were also awarded a prestigious National Institute of Justice Fellowship in 2020.

OrganOmics offers a solution to the high cost and high failure rates of new drugs in clinical trials by “delivering advanced foresight into the preclinical stage of testing,” said Spencer Seiler, UCSC bioengineering and biomedical engineering Ph.D. student. OrganOmics, which bills itself as a company dedicated to drug discovery rooted in precision medicine, reimagines clinical trials through precision medicine. By selecting drug trial participants based on their medical history, current symptoms, and likelihood of benefitting from the trial, OrganOmics enables significant efficiency improvements for high cost pharma. Their innovative approach also includes monitoring drug-tissue response in the early stages of testing. 

In addition to the top three IDEA Hub winners, the Judge’s Award for special recognition and a prize of $7,000 went to Baskin Engineering Computational Media Ph.D. candidate Jared Duval for his speech therapy technology Spokelt, a low-cost product designed to improve speech patterns for children born with cleft palates. The award puts SpokeIt at well over $600k in grants and funding. SpokeIt will launch to App stores after receiving final approval from the FDA.

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development offers year-round startup development programming for UCSC students. Information on the CIED and other startup programs on campus can be found on CruzX, the social network platform for UCSC’s startup community.