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Students and Researcher in UC Spotlight Vying in Grad Slam, Pitching to Venture Capitalists

By Dateline Staff on May 2, 2017 in University

Opportunity is knocking for two UC Davis students and a researcher in two UC-wide programs later this week:

  • Ph.D. student Sam Westreich will represent UC Davis in the UC Grad Slam, a competition in which graduate students explain their research in talks of three minutes or less, aiming to quickly capture audience members’ attention, maintain their interest, and succeed in having them understand the work being done and its significance.
  • Undergraduate Zain Budhwani and staff researcher Bob Coates will pitch their technology-based business ideas to three of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists. Budhwani and Coates are getting this opportunity because of their participation in the “I Am a UC Entrepreneur” campaign.

Grad Slam microphone logoThe Grad Slam, in its third year, impresses among students the importance of making university research more accessible to the public. Judges look at how well the students communicate key concepts and how effectively the students focus and present their ideas, according to the Grad Slam website. UC’s 10 campuses each sends one master’s or one doctoral student to the Grad Slam.

Each year, UC Davis Graduate Studies holds a campus Grad Slam to decide who will go to the systemwide Grad Slam. The 2017 UC Davis Grad Slam comprised a qualifying round in February and the final round April 14.

Westreich, a fourth-year student in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group, won the $1,000 top prize with his presentation on “Understanding the Gut Microbiome with Metatranscriptomics.” Here’s how he opened his presentation: “Let me tell you about the 5 trillion stowaways hiding inside your body right now … the gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria that lives inside our intestinal tract.”

Sam Westreich mugshot

He went on to describe his work in metatranscriptomics — simply put, “big data” — a new method of studying the gut microbiome with greater resolution via super computers. And he told how he created Simple Analysis of Metatranscriptomes through Sequence Adaptation, or SAMSA, “a program that handles this complex data and analyzes it from beginning to end.” Read Dateline’s coverage of Westreich’s campus win.

Now he brings his presentation to the UC Grad Slam, offering a total of $11,000 in prize money. UC President Janet Napolitano will emcee the contest, which will be judged by a panel of leaders in industry, media, government and higher education.

The Grad Slam will begin at 10:30 a.m. this Thursday (May 4), and will be live-streamed from the LinkedIn offices in downtown San Francisco. Look for the live stream link on the UC Grad Slam website, and be sure to cast your vote for the people’s choice award, which is new this year. Viewers will have 40 minutes to cast their votes to determine who gets the $1,000 prize.

See the Grad Slam finalists here. Read more about the competition in this UC news release: “At UC’s Third Annual Grad Slam, Grad Students Tackle Big Ideas in 180 Seconds.”

‘I Am a UC Entrepreneur’

Launched during Global Entrepreneurship Week last November, the “I Am a UC Entrepreneur” campaign called on the university’s innovators and entrepreneurs to share their ideas in 30-second videos as a way to highlight entrepreneurship across the 10-campus system.

Students, staff and faculty entered 340 videos by Feb. 28, which was the deadline for a chance to have lunch with Napolitano and Christine Gulbranson, each of whom is nurturing UC’s vibrant entrepreneurial culture — Napolitano with her President’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, and Gulbranson as senior vice president in charge of the UC Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The prize lunch is scheduled for this Friday (May 5) in Oakland, and Napolitano and Gulbranson have also invited these venture capiatlists: Brook Byers of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB); Josh Green of Mohr Davidow Ventures; and Brendon Kim of Samsung NEXT.

I Am a UC Entrepreneur logoAll of the videos — recorded in offices, labs and dorms, and at “I Am a UC Entrepreneur” video parties — are posted on the campaign website. To determine who would get to go to the lunch, the organizers put all the student entries together, and all the staff and faculty entries together, then separated them by campus. Then the organizers conducted drawings to randomly select the winners: 10 students, one from each campus; and nine staff or faculty members, one from every campus except Merced.

Which brings us back to our UC Davis winners:

  • Budhwani — He’s a third-year computer science major, and he’s pitching Japa, a mobile parking application for which he is a software developer.
  • Coates — Officially a staff researcher, he has a work title of associate development engineer and he works in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. He is pitching SenseTerra, sensor network technology.

Here’s more about them, including some of what they had to say in their videos (click on the boxes to watch):

The Japa team participated in the winter 2017 cohort of student projects seeking support from the ASUCD Entrepreneurship Fund. And while Japa did not receive funding, the team still benefited from the program’s 10-week “accelerator program,” broken into five phases: customer discovery, customer acquisition, product development, scale-traction-pivot, and pitch preparation.

Coates holds two UC Davis degrees in biological systems engineering (Bachelor of Science, 2002, and Master of Science, 2005), and has worked as a development engineer here since then. He also has served as a lecturer for EBS 165, “Bioinstrumentation and Control,” in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. 

‘Entrepreneurial powerhouse’

Badhwani and Coates and the other contest winners “represent the talent, diversity and passion that make UC an entrepreneurial powerhouse,” Gulbranson said. “The ‘I Am a UC Entrepreneur’ campaign showcases their unique stories, as well as the breadth and depth of UC’s entrepreneurial efforts across more than two dozen incubators and accelerators across the system.”

Gulbranson said the campaign continues, and she is encouraging students, faculty, staff and postdocs to share their inspiring stories. And she advised alumni entrepreneurs to “stay tuned” — because a campaign for them is coming. 

Everyone who submits a video gets a “UC Entrepreneur” T-shirt. And, who knows who you might end up going to lunch with!

The UC Office of the President Media Relations staff contributed to this report. Read the UCOP news release about the “I Am a UC Entrepreneur” pitch session.

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.

About the author(s)

Dateline Staff Dave Jones, editor, can be reached at 530-752-6556 or Cody Kitaura, news and media relations specialist, can be reached at 530-752-1932 or