Pitching its optical technology for early detection of urinary tract infections (UTIs) to help save lives, improve health, and reduce costs, Metabowlite won UC Santa Barbara’s 23rd Annual New Venture Competition (NVC) Finals, taking home the $10,000 First Place Award. The event represents the culmination of the Technology Management (TM) Department’s rigorous eight-month technology-business-plan competition that is open to students from all disciplines at UCSB.
“It’s a great honor to receive such a generous cash prize and land first place at the competition,” said Metabowlite team member Orlando Chirikian, a PhD candidate in biomolecular science and engineering (BMSE). “We are grateful to all of our friends, colleagues, and family who supported us throughout the competition. It would not have been possible for us to convey such a polished presentation without the constant help and support of our mentors.”
Comprising Chirikian, Markus Merk, and Mohamed Faynus, all of whom are PhD candidates in BMSE, Metabowlite designed a technology to detect UTIs quickly and accurately. UTIs are one of the top health complications that impact people 65 years and older, second only to respiratory infections. Seventy percent of UTI cases in the elderly progress to urosepsis, where the body’s aged immune system starts attacking its own tissue, requiring hospitalization, and, often, causing cognitive impairment and kidney problems. Because most people seek treatment for UTIs only after experiencing symptoms, the team created a product to quickly and accurately detect UTIs before they cause significant issues.
“The whole idea was really a group effort,” said Faynus, who initially signed up the team for NVC with the goal of developing a business that could provide something useful to the world. “Markus recalled an old idea of his to analyze urine using optics, a technique that he used frequently during his previous job as a chemical lab technician. And coupled with Orlando’s experience in retirement homes and working with UTIs, our concept was formulated.”
The team created a device, MBlite, that fits onto any standard toilet bowl to automatically collect and analyze a urine sample, sending the digital data through its software to the user quickly to provide real-time information.
“The MBlite is unique because it allows the user to autonomously measure and assess their health status on a daily basis by detecting the onset of an infection,” said Merk. “We believe that MBlite will be successful because of its simplicity, ease of use, and capability to detect UTIs using technology that has been well curated.”
The team says it encountered many hiccups along the way, but none bigger than their decision to change their direction several months into the competition.
“We were initially focused on an entirely different market, but had to make the change for the betterment of the project and the company,” explained Chirikian. “Making this change relatively close to the competition added a significant amount of work, but it was all worth it. We all truly believe in the concept and now have several sources of proof to support our product.”
The next steps for Metabowlite are to secure additional seed funding, establish pilot contracts with assisted-living facilities, and develop a prototype. The team hopes to produce units by the first quarter of 2024 and commercialize by 2025. They say that the urinalysis product could eventually be expanded to screen for cancer, Type II diabetes, preeclampsia, and sexually transmitted diseases.
RapSyn finished in second place and shared the Impact Award to earn a total of $10,000. The team created a rapid biomanufacturing platform that enables protein-production facilities to significantly improve their manufacturing yields, reduce production costs, and delay costly infrastructure expansion. Third place and a check for $5,000 went to VizNet, which created an online dive report and forecasting service that allows customers to check ocean visibility conditions in their area before they dive, snorkel, or swim. The Refillr team, which created a fully serviced, multi-product fluid dispensing system with UV sanitization to promote the sustainable practice of beauty product refilling, earned $10,000 after receiving honorable mention, the People’s Choice Award, and sharing the Impact Award. The Raveival team, which designed a platform to sell and purchase second-hand and music festival apparel, received honorable mention and $2,500.
Mentored by dozens of individuals who have lived and thrived in the fast-paced world of tech entrepreneurship, students in the NVC program have the opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills, refine their business plans, and practice pitching their stories and ideas. Of the dozens of teams that started the program in October 2021, twelve were selected to participate in the NVC Fair, and five of those twelve were selected to compete in the final. During the NVC Fair, Refillr and Metabowlite shared the Best of Fair Award and received $1,000 apiece.
“I’m always impressed with how the teams pull their final pitches together in the last couple weeks of the program. We provide them with coaching resources, but at the end of the day it comes down to their ability to tell the story of their business, and I thought all of the teams did that very well,” said TM entrepreneurship director, Dave Adornetto. “What impressed me most about Metabowlite was how they evolved through their customer discovery process, to determine the best application for their technology. They made a major pivot midway through the program, which enabled them to identify and meet a real need in the healthcare system.”
“The program was an exciting and excellent learning experience,” added Faynus, who said he and his teammates gained valuable knowledge of how to form a business, the importance of unit economics, and the power of market validation. “We have made several connections and friendships that will have a lasting impact on our company.”
After the pandemic forced the event to go virtual the previous two years, the university’s premier start-up competition returned to an in-person format. Each team pitched their products and business plans and answered questions from a judges panel of tech entrepreneurship experts and investors. This year’s judges included Sherman Chu, the founder and managing partner at Grayhawk Capital; Karen Roter Davis, the former director of early-stage projects at Google X and a partner at Entrada Ventures; angel investor Bei-Jing Guo, a graduate of UCSB’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who spent twenty years at Microsoft and Amazon Web Service; and Jason Spievak, the co-founder and general partner of Entrada Ventures.
“There’s nothing that replaces a live audience in terms of energy and enthusiasm, which added to the experience of all involved,” said Adornetto. “There’s just a different level of preparation required by everybody for an in-person event, so everything was sharper. I’m very proud of how we kept the program going during the pandemic, but Zoom fatigue was a real factor early on in this year’s program, and things really started picking up as we got back to working together.”