Growing up in Ningbo, China, near Shanghai, Han Cai remembers air so thick and dark with pollution that some days she and other children couldn’t even go outside to play. Her grandparents also stayed indoors, choking on the fetid air.
At a young age, Cai decided that she would somehow address the problem. Now, she has.
Cai, now a 19-year-old sophomore, and two teammates from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering recently cofounded a startup called Apeiron. Greek for “unlimited” or “boundless,” Apeiron has created technology that extracts carbon from natural gas, resulting in zero-emission energy. By removing carbon before combustion, the technology also produces a highly profitable byproduct: graphene, a thin, transparent and strong layer of pure carbon useful in the production of touch-screen applications, solar cells and better-performing batteries.
On Thursday, April 5 before an enthusiastic audience at the USC Davidson Conference Center, Apeiron took home the $50,000 grand prize, plus $20,000 in free legal services, at the eighth annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition. Members of the startup credit the contest for much of Apeiron’s success.
“Through MEPC, we learned how to tell our story to investors, netted many advisors and contacted several potential customers,” said Esra Tiftik, a master’s student in chemical engineering. “I like to say I got my MBA through MEPC.”
Added Cai, Apeiron CEO and a student at the USC Marshall School of Business: “MEPC really helped me see the market opportunity and to get out of the building and talk to real-world customers to understand their needs.”
Producing Tomorrow’s Startups
Founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, MEPC is a major engineering business model competition at USC.
“The competition supports and develops our next generation of inventors, giving them tangible resources to go out and see if these technologies have any place in the marketplace,” said Alice Liu, assistant director for USC Viterbi’s Office of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Whether it’s this venture or the next, they are armed with the mindset and tools to make their mark.”
This year’s finals featured possibly the strongest field in the competition’s history, said Maseeh, the contest’s namesake.
“They seem to have a lot more seasoned companies with a lot more depth than we’ve seen before,” he said.
Alexa Hudnut, founder of fourth-place finisher, Salmon Squisher – the maker of a sensor-laden tool that analyzes fish texture to ascertain a fish’s age, freshness, fat content and whether it’s wild or farm raised – echoed Maseeh.
“I think it’s unique to have a competition geared to and focused on engineers,” said Hudnut, a USC Viterbi biomedical engineering Ph.D. student. “The technology is really strong here.”
Forty-seven teams applied for 20 slots in the competition. In March, a panel of judges whittled that number down to six finalists.
The 2018 MEPC winners include:
1st Place – Apeiron ($20,000 in free legal assistance) – Offers a clean-energy generator that produces carbon emission-free power, while producing a valuable carbon byproduct, graphene
2nd Place – Senseer LLC ($15,000 in free legal assistance) – Developing a catheter instrumented with patent-pending microsensor technologies to wirelessly measure blockage, flow rate and pressure in patients with chronic conditions, including hydrocephalus, or excessive brain fluid. The Senseer catheter would enable real-time monitoring of catheter performance, early clinical intervention and improved patient care and lower costs
3rd Place – MARSC Technologies ($10,000 in free legal assistance) – Makes a high-pressure cold spray to repair, refurbish and fabricate parts and components for different industries
4th Place – Salmon Squisher ($5,000 in free legal assistance) – Uses a patented optical fiber polarimetric elastography instrument to differentiate between wild and farmed fish by measuring stiffness
The remaining finalists:
Carbon Thumbprint – Developing a product that measures transcutaneous carbon dioxide electrochemically in a faster, easier and more accurate way
FAR-Horizons (FAR-H) – Uses microbial DNA for oil and gas exploration and production in a cleaner, faster and more cost-effective manner than other methods
A Journey to Success
Over the course of five months, USC Viterbi student-led MEPC teams attended workshops, developed by the National Science Foundation-funded Innovation Node-Los Angeles, focusing on customer discovery, business models, social entrepreneurship and engineering solutions.
MEPC participants also received $500 in customer discovery grants.
Additionally, Professor Pai-Ling Yin from the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the USC Marshall School co-taught some of the workshops, making her expertise available to the budding entrepreneurs. MEPC participants said they found the educational sessions particularly valuable.
“MEPC really helped us trim our project and focus on the goal of making our startup happen and taking it to the next level,” said USC Viterbi alumnus Alireza Sarraf, Ph.D. AME ’16, of MARSC.
As in recent years, mentors worked closely with the teams. This year’s competition attracted 31 of them.
USC Viterbi has become a burgeoning center of innovation and entrepreneurship. With MEPC, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (“I-Corps”) Node headquartered on campus, the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, and the USC Viterbi Startup Garage, students have more opportunities than ever to develop innovative business models, explore the commercialization of technologies and help Silicon Beach flourish.
The competition has spawned several promising companies.
The 2017 champ, Thermal View Monitoring, has developed an image guidance system that provides real-time, 3-D temperature map during thermal ablation therapy. Unlike with MRIs and CTs, physicians could take quality images in the operating room. The result: significant time and cost savings.
Second Spectrum, the 2013 champion, analyzes Big Data for insights into sport performance, such as what constitutes good defense and offense in basketball. The firm counts the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics among its many NBA clients. Abtum, the 2011 winner, offers solutions for handsets, tablets and ultra-books, providing better filters in critical performance metrics and significant annual savings for customers.
Aria Samiei, a USC Viterbi Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, hopes that Apeiron, the startup he cofounded, will enjoy the same success of several of its MEPC predecessors.
“Before this competition, I didn’t have any real idea about becoming an entrepreneur,” said Samiei, adding that team members thank the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, especially Sri Narayan, Surya Prakash and Robert Aniszfeld, for their generous support. “But after it, everything has changed. I’m enjoying this journey and want to continue this.”