Entrepreneurs Make Their Pitch on the Big Stage at Big Idea Competition

Two attendees take a selfie together

Veena Somareddy, co-founder of NeuroRehab VR, delivers the winning presentation at the 2017 Big Idea Competition. 

A year of transformation in the innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives at The University of Texas at Dallas culminated recently as a team led by a doctoral student from the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) took the top prize at the finals of the 2017 Big Idea Competition.

NeuroRehab VR, which develops virtual reality games to help patients recover from strokes, neurodegenerative diseases or traumatic brain injuries, won the competition’s $15,000 first-place prize and received the $2,500 Diversity and Inclusion Award.

Veena Somareddy, an ATEC PhD student who co-founded NeuroRehab VR, said the honors brought extra validation for her team’s efforts.

“Virtual reality is new,” she said. “We’re trying to bring something that wasn’t already there. We’ve gotten validation from our patients and therapists. Now getting it from Guy Kawasaki and everybody else means a lot.”

Kawasaki, a brand evangelist and best-selling author, shared his tips on “The Art of Innovation” in the keynote address and served as a judge, along with Jeff Williams BS’87, a partner at Interlock; Julie Nickols, an attorney and partner at Haynes and Boone LLP; Courtney Caldwell MBA’06, co-founder of ShearShare; and Robert Metcalfe, Ethernet co-founder and a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.  

The competition, formerly the Business Idea Competition, featured startup ideas ranging from wearable robotics that help patients with knee injuries become more mobile to drones that municipal governments can use to detect air pollution.

Nickols said the quality of the ideas made the judges’ decision difficult.

Alta Air members (from left) Jason Tran, Konan Mirza and Yosias Kassaye

From left: Jason Tran, Konan Mirza and Yosias Kassaye make their presentation for Alta Air, which placed third at the event and won $2,500 for the best undergraduate idea.

“We were all very impressed with how relatively far along the companies had come in a short period of time,” she said. “I was very impressed with Alta Air. For undergrads, that was a pretty sophisticated operation they've come up with.”

Alta Air, whose members were Konan Mirza and Jason Tran, both finance and economics double majors in the Naveen Jindal School of Management (JSOM), and electrical engineering student Yosias Kassaye, received $5,000 for third place. They also won $2,500 for the best undergraduate idea. Their concept involved a modular drone design with interchangeable sensors.

Elaine Wang, a master’s in management science student in JSOM, and Trusit Shah, a computer science doctoral student, presented Cthrough, a mobile app that enhances the user’s experience at attractions such as zoos and museums. Cthrough won the $10,000 second-place prize.

Other winners were Skyven Technologies, which earned the $2,500 Biggest Social Impact Award, and UT Dallas’ Brain Performance Institute, which received the $2,500 award for the biggest and most innovative idea.

Somareddy said the prize money would help NeuroRehab VR hire developers, put together a sales and marketing team, deploy the applications to five clinics across the U.S. and ensure the applications conform to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations.

Steve Guengerich, who took the helm of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) earlier this year, was energized by the success of the event. Of the 144 students who entered the competition, 53 percent of them were from non-JSOM schools. That is an increase of more than 50 percent over last year.

Guengerich credited the people who helped make entrepreneurship at UT Dallas happen — Dr. Hasan Pirkul, dean of the Jindal School, and Dr. Joseph C. Picken, the founder of IIE, in particular.

Elaine Wang and Trusit Shah pose with Guy Kawasaki

Elaine Wang (left) and Trusit Shah (right), who placed second in the competition, met with judge Guy Kawasaki after the event.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the students and the learning experience,” he said. “I am just thrilled that we have the support from people like Dean Pirkul and Joseph Picken, who both helped cooked up this whole scheme to say that events such as this one are as important as what we’re doing in the Jindal School on the academic side.”

Bryan Chambers, program director at Blackstone LaunchPad, which opened on campus earlier this year, was impressed with the quality of the pitches, but was already looking to the future.

“Our faculty, our staff — we’ve got really big visions for where we think this event needs to go,” he said. “We plan to do it bigger and better next year.”

Sponsors and community partners of the competition included Interlock Partners, Tolleson Wealth Management, Capital Factory, the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, the Dallas chapter of TiE and MassChallenge Texas.

Entrepreneurship Program Climbs Three Spots in Rankings

The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine placed JSOM’s MS in Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at No. 19 in its list of the Top 25 Best Grad Programs for Entrepreneurs in 2018, up three spots from last year’s ranking.

Madison Pedigo, director of the innovation and entrepreneurship academic programs at the Jindal School, was pleased with the improvement in the ranking.

“Each year, we improve our program in multiple dimensions,” he said. “This includes adding exciting new courses, increasing student enrollment and improving our already outstanding support programs, such as Blackstone LaunchPad and the Big Idea Competition.”

More than 300 schools that offer entrepreneurship majors, minors, concentrations or degree programs participated in the 60-question rankings survey. The methodology included data such as scholarships, competitions, mentorship programs, alumni startups, student enrollment, entrepreneurship-related faculty and courses, and student and faculty entrepreneurship activity.

New Startup Launch Track for Computer Science Students

Another example of the growing entrepreneurship on campus is the Jindal School’s partnership with the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science to develop the Computer Science Software Startup Launch Track.

In the track, computer science students interested in launching a software-based startup company can complete entrepreneurship courses that will count toward their degree.

“Students in the track will complete startup launch courses and participate in the CometX accelerator at the Blackstone LaunchPad and in the Big Idea Competition. These provide multiple opportunities for mentoring, funding and launch support,” Pedigo said.

For more information about the track, visit the Jonsson School or Jindal School webpages.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].