Venture Competition Spotlights Engineering Innovators

Apr 29 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Photos: David Dini

At Columbia Engineering’s annual venture competition, social business startup Toilets for People nabbed first place, a $25,000 prize, for its innovative composting toilet dubbed “The CRAPPER.”

Toilets for People (TfP) won over the judges with its pitch to provide safe sanitation to three million people in the next 10 years. Second place, a $15,000 award, went to PhD Devices, a maker of an affordable microfluidic device for quick at-home testing of neutrophil levels, and third place, a $10,000 prize, to construction management startup GamePlan.

Held at the Northwest Corner Building April 25, the Columbia Venture Competition is the School’s annual entrepreneurial contest, and one of the ways Columbia Engineering supports and promotes the innovative ideas generated by student and alumni entrepreneurs. Sixty-two entries were received this year by qualified applicants—current Columbia Engineering students or alumni who have only been out of school for five years or less. Six final teams competed and were judged by a panel of investors and executive leaders, including Laurie J. Giddins, senior vice president at the Partnership Fund for NYC; Steve Jacobs BS’94, MS’96, PhD’98, CIO of Gilt; Scott Levine BS’89, ’04BUS; and Alessandro Piol BS’79, MS’82, co-founder and president at Vedanta Capital. Judges made their decisions on various criteria, including the startup’s market opportunity, management team, and financials plan.

Nidhi Shah BS’11 is part of the six-member winning team representing Toilets for People, which included colleagues Jason Kass, president and founder; Anna Klein, creative director; Nechemya Kagedan, business development director; Avromi Kanal, health metrics lead; and Phillip Winter, director of strategic partnerships. Shah studied chemical engineering while a student at the School and now serves as TfP’s lead in India where she is working on the products roll-out to serve the Indian market. The company’s aim in designing and selling affordable, waterless composting toilets is to provide a solution for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack a safe, hygienic place to go to the bathroom. The CRAPPER has been designed for residents of areas where conventional toilet technologies like flush toilets or pit latrines fail due to the land being flood-prone or waterlogged. The portability and rapid deployment of the CRAPPER also makes it well suited for serving refugees communities as part of disaster response. TfP also is committed to providing customers what they really care about, namely the privacy, comfort, cleanliness, convenience, and dignity of having a toilet of their own.

“We could not be more excited,” says Kass. “We were happy to have made the finals given the caliber of the competition coming out of the engineering program at Columbia. Since winning we have been over the moon and also feverishly planning the next steps that the funding will allow us to take.”

Second-place winner PhD Devices, led by Bridget Matikainen-Ankney MS’11, is developing a microfluidic device that will allow chemotherapy patients to monitor their immune cell levels, specifically neutrophils, in an in-home setting at an affordable price. Their aim is to decrease health care provider workload, lower patient travel and wait time, cut costs, and decrease time-to-treatment.

“Even to have made it to the final round of the Columbia Venture Competition was an honor,” says Matikainen-Ankney. “This prize will allow us to perform necessary proof-of-concept experiments and actually start engineering our device.”

For the complicated construction world, startup GamePlan has developed web-based project and production management software to make the collaboration process easier and more efficient for construction professionals. Niranjan Shrestha MS’12 says they plan to use the third-place prize money to further develop and promote their mobile app to support 3D models and building information modeling.

“This month has been really pivotal for us in terms of getting our first pilot project and winning this CVC award,” says Shrestha. “Feedback from the judges and the organizing team has been really inspirational in terms of product development and marketing strategies.”

Launched in 2009, Columbia Venture Competition has paid out more than $100,000 in prize money to early-stage ventures, all founded by Columbia students or alumni. Over the academic year, the Engineering School sponsors multiple programs dedicated to its thriving community of innovators, including Columbia Engineering Fast Pitch Competition in the fall and NYC Next Idea in the spring.

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