Taking Innovation off Campus & into Commercialization

By David Orsman

For the past 14 years, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance has showcased some of the best university student inventors in the country at its annual March Madness for the Mind event.

This year, recognizing the student teams we work with are focused on becoming companies, we’ve rechristened the event Open Minds to better reflect the serious nature of the students’ entrepreneurial aspirations.

So what to expect from Open Minds 2011? The event is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Saturday, March 26, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Fifteen teams will display and discuss their inventions, as well as their plans to commercialize these innovations. This year’s sponsors are Intellectual Ventures, Time Warner Cable – Connect A Million Minds and General Patent Corporation.

You can vote for this year’s teams at InventorsDigest.com.

Meantime, here’s a look at some past participants:


ZeoMost alarm clocks don’t care whether you’re ready to wake. But according to “sleep coach” company Zeo, they should.

Many people wake up to sleep inertia, a groggy condition that negatively affects temper, basic mechanics and reflexes. While a night’s sleep consists of three phases –light, deep and REM – studies indicate sleepers suffer from the worst sleep inertia when woken from deep sleep and the least when woken from light sleep.

In 2003, the NCIIA awarded a grant to a student team from Brown University to develop a “smart” alarm clock that wakes the user only during light sleep.

The team exhibited the technology at the NCIIA annual event in 2005 and used the visibility to begin fund raising. Now incorporated as Zeo, the company offers a number of consumer sleep products, including the SmartWake Alarm, a personal sleep coach program, software sensor technology and web technology to help customers track their sleeping patterns.

In 2009 Zeo announced it had raised $8.3 million in series-C funding, enabling the company to complete final development and successfully sell its products.

Visit www.myzeo.com

Ecovative Design


Remove petroleum-originated packaging from the planet – that’s the vision of Ecovative Design, a packaging company based in Green Island, N.Y.

Its product, Ecocradle, is biodegradable and home compostable. It’s made from seed husks and mushroom roots. It performs similarly to synthetic foams, but takes far less energy to produce.

Ecocradle is making waves and headlines. Office furniture manufacturer Steelcase is using it, and the technology behind Ecocradle has been featured in a variety of media, including an episode of CSI New York.

Remarkably, it’s been only three years since the team of Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, attended the 2008 NCIIA event in Dallas.

They’d just received a grant from the NCIIA to further develop their green insulation product, Greensulate, the precursor to Ecocradle.

That funding and subsequent buzz accelerated the formation of Ecovative Design and a host of successes, including winning 500,000 euros at the Picnic Green Challenge 2008 in Amsterdam, the world’s premier green ideas conference; receiving SBIR Phase I funding from the Environmental Protection Agency; and winning the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Clean Energy Venture Awards.

Visit www.ecovativedesign.com

DayOne Response

OpenforBusiness_Waterbag2_smallIn 18 short months, DayOne Response has moved from a student team with a cool idea to a company with a disaster-relief product the U.S. Marines and the Thai military are testing.

Providing people with clean drinking water is the one of the biggest challenges following natural disasters. The team from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo is developing a new way to ensure people have access to safe drinking water.

The Polytech Waterbag is a 10-liter plastic bladder equipped with carrying straps and an integrated filter and dispensing port. It’s designed to be used with Procter & Gamble’s PUR chemical treatment packets.

Progress has been quick, even by NCIIA’s venture-accelerator standards. After awarded an NCIIA grant in 2009, the team completed a business strategy workshop with the NCIIA and was selected to attend the association’s March 2010 event in San Francisco.

A month later, the team incorporated as DayOne Response and landed a contract with the U.S. Navy to continue developing the waterbag via a joint technology exercise with the Marines and Thai military. The waterbag was one of the few technologies in that exercise to meet U.S. military objectives for humanitarian aid and disaster-relief missions.

You can find DayOne Response on Facebook.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 2011 print edition.

Not a subscriber!? Click here now!