Molecular and marine innovation win at URI’s 401 Tech Bridge Entrepreneur Pitch Night

URI’s i(X)Studio fields pitches from 13 University innovators

KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 19, 2023 – 401 Tech Bridge, a business unit of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation, recently hosted pitch presentations by 13 aspiring entrepreneurs from across the University. The budding entrepreneurs, all students, worked with RISE-UP’s i(X)Studio at URI, an industry-based program that supports students, faculty, and the Rhode Island community in commercializing entrepreneurial ideas.

The fall cohort of i(X)Studio students completed training and presented their business ideas in early December at the premier i(X)Studio’s Entrepreneur’s Pitch Night in the URI library’s Galanti Lounge. Three ventures won awards at the pitch night:

All cohort participants, including Pitch Night winner Jason Noel (right) and Jake Bonney, received training in the latest industry practices. The program aims to cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship in Rhode Island.

RIOTS, a cost-effective and eco-friendly scientific chartering service

(Jason Noel, ocean engineering graduate student)

Jason Noel ’22, an ocean engineering graduate and Ph.D. student, won the evening’s first-place award ($1,000). A graduate research assistant in URI’s Undersea Robotics and Imaging Laboratory, Noel said he was excited to get recognition for his venture, Rhode Island Oceanographic Technology Services. Technically it’s not a company yet, but he said he’s happy to see the venture making progress to get off the ground.

Noel and his partner and co-founder Jake Bonney (part of the inaugural cohort of P2P) are starting RIOTS while pursuing their Ph.D.s in ocean engineering. They are gearing up to offer scientific charters, similar to a fishing charter, but instead offering a platform for blue-tech companies and university researchers to test equipment on the water quickly and in a climate-conscious manner.

As doctoral students in URI Ocean Engineering, their idea came out of challenges they’ve seen working there, and inspiration from the course Hacking for Oceans. RIOTS would offer a cost- and time-effective alternative to traditional research or fishing vessels, would be easier to schedule in advance, and would be focused on the primary research needed.

Noel says one of the best things about Rhode Island is that it is “the Ocean State,” meaning most of the developed technology and research surrounds “blue-tech,” referring to technology and equipment designed to be deployed in the ocean.

Pitch Night runner-up Willy Njeru (left) came up with his idea for Nanovyx after working with Professor David Rowley. Njeru developed his idea through months of workshops and mentorship sessions with i(X) and says that the technology would treat disease and save lives. (Photo Willy Njeru)

“Rhode Island is a hub for blue-tech, creating the need for a service like this, especially with the recent push for offshore wind,” Noel said.

They plan to launch in 2024, hoping to secure a vessel by the summer and test the boat in 2025. Once the boat is floating, they’ll apply for fossil fuel reduction and repowering grants to install electric/hybrid electric motors on the boat to offer “green” service.

Nanovyx, a drug delivery solution

(Willy Njeru, Doctor of Pharmacy student)

A junior pharmacy student from Houston, Willy Njeru presented his business at the pitch night with the tagline, “where big things come from small packages,” appropriate for a student who came from a large state to the smallest to pursue his Pharm.D. degree.

Njeru came to URI hoping to explore the intersection of healthcare and business strategy. i(X)Studio offered him a place to do that, as well as funding for Nanovyx, a startup concept for a technology that uses bacterial molecules to carry antibiotics ($750).

“The special thing about this concept is that it uses natural mechanisms to improve drug delivery and overcome antimicrobial resistance,” Njeru said. “Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria are able to withstand the very drugs that are supposed to eliminate them. It is one of the most significant public health issues we are facing today, and it’s only getting worse. Nanovyx seeks to step up and combat this problem head-on.”

Damien Johnson (speaking) and his teammates, still undergraduates, used their studies as computer science majors to develop an AI-powered fashion app, and received additional entrepreneurship training as part of a $2.4 million “RISE-UP” grant at URI.

Njeru came up with the idea after researching how bacteria exchange molecules with one another in Professor David Rowley’s lab in the College of Pharmacy. The project sparked conversations about how to use the mechanism to carry drugs such as antibiotics, and led to the idea of creating a technology platform that would design antibiotic-carrying molecules to help treat disease and save lives.

During the final weeks of the program, he and other participants were able to practice their pitches, receiving feedback from peers and local entrepreneurs, such as Tom Sperry, Rogue Venture Partners; Ted Howell, Howell Legal; Phil Magnuszewski, Infused Innovations; and Annette Tonti, RIHub.

“I’m truly grateful to the i(X)Studio, RIHub team, my project mentor Patrice Milos, and Dr. Rowley for providing the time, resources, and opportunities to explore my idea further,” Njeru says.

He said he was surprised by the success of his pitch, and also motivated.

“Now that there is a very basic business model in place, it’s time to get back into the lab and work on the technology itself,” Njeru said. “More data will need to be collected to prove the idea, and many technical aspects still need to be sorted out, but I’m optimistic about the possibilities that lie ahead.”

Launch pad

The Vector Company, presented by physics graduate student Erik Carlson, also won, for a new technology solution that will enable the next generation of ecological research.

Ten other URI students, several of them still undergraduates, also brought projects to i(X) for support and development, ranging from digital healthcare solutions and an AI-powered fashion app to music therapy and an affordable consumption-based laptop. The fall 2023 cohort also included Rafael Mendez, Matthew Boekamp, Damien Johnson, Caleb Cyr and Donovan Francis (RunwayAI); Briac Werner-Guichebaron (Alpha One); Christiana Smith (Music Therapy); and Ryan Ivone, Aceer Nadeem and Sophia Boiani (ConnectedCare-Health).

The studio provides aspiring entrepreneurs with tools, mentorship and networking opportunities, to help create a sustainable workforce in Rhode Island. The program helps translate URI-based ideas into intellectual property and then into products, services and potential start-up ventures.

The i(X)Studio also recently launched its Speakers Series — open to all at URI — which invites industry leaders to bring subject matter expertise to the University (follow on Instagram @riseup_ixstudio for upcoming speakers and events).

RISE-UP’s i(X)Studio has partnered with URI’s Launch Labs to propel entrepreneurial endeavors at the University. The Launch Lab is URI’s hub for interdisciplinary project-based, real-world learning, where students can transition concepts and creativity into reality, such as URI graduate Charles Johnson ’98 who won the summer 2023 pre-accelerator.

Earlier this year, URI’s Research Foundation was awarded a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to launch its “RISE-UP” initiative, catalyzing Blue Economy entrepreneurship and innovation. The goal of RISE-UP is to bring dual-use products and technology to commercialization, launching new business ventures that will have a positive impact on the Rhode Island economy.

To receive updates on guest speakers, events and recruitment drives, or apply for i(X)Studio’s spring cohort, visit here.