Startup Spirit

Entrepreneurial Alumni Are Trying to Solve Real-World Problems Through Their Own Technologies

 

by Jocelyn Anderson on March 26, 2019 in Science & Technology

This article originally appeared in the fall/winter 2018-19 issue of UC Davis Magazine.

 

MATHEW MAGNO ’18 AND CHARLES CHEN ’18 met in an engineering class at UC Davis. Among their first assignments: Think of a problem that needs solving. They immediately considered the hassles involved in parking cars.

What started as a classroom activity quickly became a viable business they call Japa. The duo created a mobile application and software system aimed at providing drivers with real-time parking availability in garages and lots. They enlisted a company to develop sensors for every parking space that communicate whether the spot is taken. Their technology can also send alerts to users when they are about to overstay and then give them the option to extend their time through the app.

Last fiscal year, 16 startups acquired foundational intellectual property rights from UC Davis, an all-time high for the university.

“With Japa, you’ll be able to map out your whole parking experience before you even leave your house,” said Magno. “We wanted to address parking because it can take 20 or 30 minutes to find a parking spot sometimes. It’s frustrating for everyone.”

They are part of an entrepreneurial movement at UC Davis, one that is supported by a variety of campus groups, programs and accelerators. Last fiscal year, 16 startups acquired foundational intellectual property rights from UC Davis, an all-time high for the university. Still others developed their ideas through classes or graduate programs.

parking sensors in parking lot spaces
Charles Chen, left, and Mathew Magno, photographed at the Pavilion Parking Structure at UC Davis. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Parking progress

Magno and Chen took Japa to the UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition in May and won first prize. Presented by the Graduate School of Management, the event also includes opportunities through workshops, networking and mentoring.

Since then, Japa has secured an angel investor, hired a software developer and formed partnerships with the city of Walnut Creek and companies like Siemens. They also connected with University of California President Janet Napolitano in hopes of bringing their system UC-wide. It already is being piloted at UC Berkeley.

Said Magno, “We want to make life easier for drivers.”

Holly Ganz with her dogs at Point Isabel Dog Park in Richmond, California. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Pet project

Holly Ganz, Ph.D. ’04, was working in a lab on campus in 2015 when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to study the microbiology of cats. She asked for $3,000 and got more than $23,000.

As part of the campaign, Ganz offered to analyze the microbial diversity of shelter cats and those of her contributors. By sequencing the microbiome — the bacteria, fungi and other organisms that live in cats’ digestive tracts — Ganz can pinpoint any imbalances, which can affect everything from digestion to immune system function.

She asked for $3,000 and got more than $23,000 through Kickstarter.

“We learned that 20 percent of people who backed the Kitty Biome Kickstarter had a cat with a chronic digestive problem, particularly chronic diarrhea or chronic vomiting,” said Ganz. “What we had imagined would be a fun, playful thing ended up tapping into a real problem.”

cat snuggling with owner
Animal Biome’s gut microbiome restoration supplement (not pictured) is designed for cats with digestive issues. (Getty Images)

Ganz founded Animal Biome, which now sells microbiome testing kits and supplements for cats and dogs, so-called “poo pills,” which operate like fecal transplants. (These pills are made of fecal material from healthy donors, are delivered orally and correct an imbalanced microbiome 80 percent of the time.)

Going forward, Ganz said she would like to see microbiome testing become a part of general wellness tests at veterinary clinics. She currently works with about 35 practices. She will also explore the microbiome’s relationship to obesity, which could have implications for diabetes.

Maelene Wong is pictured with magnified collagen fibers, which are important to the tissue matrix, giving structure and strength to perform bodily functions. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Immune boost

As a graduate student, Maelene Wong, Ph.D. ’13, pioneered a new process for removing immunological barriers to human transplantation of animal-derived tissues.

Molecules called antigens elicit the immune response, and Wong has developed a way to remove these antigens from animal tissue in a way that maintains the natural tissue matrix. She started ViVita Technologies in 2012 to take her method to the next level. A year later, the company won Big Bang!

surgery
ViVita Technologies is starting with a patch product for reconstructive heart valve surgery. (Getty Images)

“I’m not going to claim that we eliminate all of the antigens, but we reduce the burden enough that the body doesn’t find it offensive on the short term,” said Wong. In the long-term, she added, ViVita is aiming to prove that the treated tissue can fly under the radar from immune response so that normal regenerative processes still occur, changing the matrix from animal to human in origin. “In the long-term that allows the possibility of avoiding immune rejection altogether.”

Down the line, Wong said off-the-shelf organs could be a possibility. She is, however, starting smaller — with a patch product for reconstructive heart valve surgery. ViVita has partnered with a leading heart valve manufacturer to help validate the technology for market.

The next five to 10 years, she noted, will involve Food and Drug Administration studies, both animal and human, and then establishing manufacturing and sales of the patch.

“One doesn’t do a Ph.D. expecting to have something to help patients [in the end] — you want it to, but you intend to encounter hurdles,” said Wong. “The fact that this exciting technology came out of it is completely a cherry on top.”

Tim Keller at Inventopia, where he has created a community of entrepreneurs and scientists who share tools and resources to launch their startups. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Uncorked

Tim Keller ’00, M.B.A. ’08, worked in the wine industry for several years before returning to UC Davis with a desire to start his own winery. Thanks to a business plan clinic, his plans quickly changed.

Asked to consider a problem that needs solving, his vineyard experience led him to the cork versus screw cap debate. While he said corks have a 5 percent defect rate, screw caps didn’t allow in oxygen, which wine needs to age and gain in quality. He had an idea for an oxygen-regulating screw cap.

VinPerfect launched commercially in 2011. (It won Big Bang! in 2008.)

“We sold about 35 million wine closures and raised $2.6 million in equity,” Keller said. “Then we got to the point where we realized we couldn’t go to the next level unless we could raise about $20 million.”

“We sold about 35 million wine closures and raised $2.6 million in equity,” Keller said.

Last fall, Keller licensed the technology for his screw caps to Amcor, a global packaging company with expertise in wine caps. Keller said Amcor has plans to take VinPerfect caps global by selling them to wineries.

These days, Keller is helping other startups in their early phases with Inventopia, a resource-sharing space with tools many need to create their prototypes. Tenants pay monthly for use of the space. Inventopia launched last fall in Davis, and Keller already has plans to expand to a space 10 times the size (it’s about 1,800 square feet now). He also intends to launch another startup — one idea includes developing drone technology.

“Both my parents and both my siblings are entrepreneurs,” he said. “I think we were raised to see the world in that light.”