Innovation Challenge Celebrates Student Entrepreneurship

April 20, 2017


ElectroPure, a student team and developer of a water treatment/purification device for homes, schools, and other small-scale water systems, took first-place honors in the finals of the 2017 Innovation Challenge business plan competition on April 6th. The interdisciplinary team of Julie Bliss Mullen (a Ph.D. candidate in Civil Engineering) and Barrett Mully (a first-year Isenberg MBA candidate) will invest the competition’s top $26,000 prize in their promising startup.

Coordinated by Isenberg’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, the campus-wide student competition awarded $65,000 in seed money to ElectroPure and two other teams in a field of seven finalists. The finals attracted an enthusiastic audience of 175 from the business and academic communities. Its panel of six entrepreneurially accomplished judges* chased each team’s three-minute presentation with questions that probed business strategies and tactics.

The ElectroPure device attaches easily to a home’s intake valve, Julie Bliss Mullen told the gathering. Its [provisionally] patented technology removes bacteria, metals, and other impurities before they penetrate a building’s internal plumbing. [In an earlier interview, Bliss Mullen noted that the attachment, for example, would remove lead content in water by oxidizing it.] With no filter replacement, the cost-efficient device requires little or no maintenance. The venture’s immediate target markets—builders and home water purification suppliers—would typically install the product in concert with homeowners and municipalities. Bliss Mullen and Mully will deploy their prize to build prototype versions and to test them in houses and other buildings.


StarSperm, developer of a proprietary medium that overcomes male infertility in vitro by improving sperm functionality, was second-place winner in the Challenge. Brandishing a compact mouse fertility “kit,” the venture’s founder, Felipe Navarrete, a Ph.D. candidate in Animal Biotechnology & BioMedical Science, will deploy his $20,000 prize to refine and expand his success with mice (from 0 up to 90% fertility) to embrace bovines, equines, and other species. His ultimate species goal: Homo sapiens.

The third-place, $15,000, winner was AG Rowe Intelligence, which devises automated data collection and analysis systems that help improve performance of both indoor and outdoor agriculture. The venture’s founders, Levi Lilly and Paul O’Connor, are bachelor’s degree candidates in Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences. According to Lilly, the startup’s cloud-based systems “bridge the gap between drone and software companies,” sending directions and advice to GPS, sprayers, and irrigation systems and their customers. The latter, he remarked, will include seed companies, golf course management enterprises, agrochemical firms, and others.

The event’s master of ceremonies Berthiaume Center Director of New Ventures Birton Cowden, noted that the finals culminated two semesters of Innovation Challenge competitions. Earlier events included the Minute Pitch Competition in October, the Seed Pitch Competition in November, and the Semifinals in March. No longer an early-stage venture itself, the campus-wide Innovation Challenge has been “challenging” student teams since 2005.

*The Judges: John Brooks, Matt Bannister, Eric Ashman, Jay Shwartz, Tom Heiser, Bud Robertson

Isenberg and the Berthiaume Center thank the following Innovation Challenge sponsors:

Gold Level—EY, The Heiser Family Fund, Art and Barbara Elkins

Silver Level—John and Sally Burke, Kumar Ganapathy

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    First place winner ElectroPure took home $26,000.

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    Berthiaume Directors with all three of this year's Innovation Challenge winners.

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    Thank you to our judges.



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