Startups

Blockchain tech and life sciences startups take top spots at CMU’s 2022 McGinnis Venture Competition

The pitch competition has produced a slew of successful alumni: Past winners including Mach9 Robotics, Agot AI and Fifth Season have often gone on to grow their startups in Pittsburgh.

Members of the winning graduate team, NiFTy.

(Photo via Twitter)

Another year, another fresh crop of promising entrepreneurs from one of the region’s most renowned pitch competitions for students.

Carnegie Mellon University announced the winners of its annual McGinnis Venture Competition last night. A pitch competition for CMU undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs, the event is hosted each year by the university’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and awards winners with a total of $60,000 in investments. The combined in-person and online event featured presentations from three undergraduate finalists and 11 graduate finalists, with awards announced at an evening reception at the Swartz Center at the Tepper Quad on campus.

Launched in 2013, the competition is supported by an endowment from Gerald McGinnis, founder of Respironics — a company later acquired by Philips that is credited with helping to jumpstart the Pittsburgh tech industry in the 21st century. Winners of past competitions include several companies that have gone on to grow successfully in the Pittsburgh region, including Mach9 Robotics, Agot AI, TalkMeUp, RoBotany (now Fifth Season) and VIT (acquired by SWORD Health last year).

While other notable companies have come out of CMU without winning the competition, it’s become a signifier of potential for success in funding and commercialization in recent years. That’s due in large part to the vast resources offered to winners beyond the small funding prizes, including coaching, networking opportunities and exposure to CMU alumni working in entrepreneurship and venture capital.

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Taking first place and a prize of $25,000 in the graduate category this year was NiFTy, a platform for gamers to access blockchain-based games where they can also buy, sell and trade in-game assets such as nonfungible tokens. Its three team members are Pranjal Chavarkar, Adithiyajothriam L and Kyle Snyder according to the competition website.

NiFTy’s business idea comes at a time of increased activity both locally and globally in the Web3 space, from new Pittsburgh meetups centered on the topic to an executive order from President Biden to formally explore the potential for a digital dollar. It’s a sign that the space will only grow in the future, joining companies like Stronghold Digital Mining, which have already started to capitalize on the trend.

Taking second place and $15,000 in the graduate category was Advanced Optronics. The medical device company from Jay Reddy and Ruth Segall is a graduate of the LifeX accelerator and specializes in the development of electronic and optical systems to make surgery less invasive. Its first product is a live feedback system for cochlear implant surgery.

Coming in third place for a prize of $10,000 in the graduate category was E-Carebetics. Currently participating in the LifeX accelerator, this startup from Bingda Li, Devansh Parikh and Mukunthan Tharmakulasingam is a mobile AI-powered diagnostic tool for diabetic retinopathy.

Both the second and third place wins in the graduate category point to the growing activity of life sciences commercialization in Pittsburgh, leveraging the medical expertise that exists across universities and hospital systems here to bring new ideas to market.

The first place winner of a $4,000 prize for the undergraduate category was road slickness calculating startup Flurry, founded by Miguel Brandao, Jack Winters and Steven Wu. Coming in second place for a prize of $2,500 was BAM!, a startup founded by Kaitlyn Chow that specializes in the development of climate-controlled beverage bottles. Both undergraduate teams will also receive a place in the CMU Venture Challenge, which started earlier this month and concludes in April.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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