New UC ventures seek to solve pressing challenges in health care equity, energy efficiency, education access and more.
The CITRIS Foundry welcomes its fall 2021 cohort, comprising 11 teams of student and faculty inventors addressing some of society’s biggest challenges, such as providing access to health care and minimizing energy use. The incubator is open to teams affiliated with the four campuses of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS), and the six-month program offers technical founders a community of like-minded innovators, one-on-one coaching and expert mentoring, and co-working and laboratory space on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Since its founding in 2013, the CITRIS Foundry has supported more than 125 startups that have secured more than $220 million in total funding.
“We are excited to welcome this new set of teams who are eager to tackle 21st-century challenges,” said CITRIS Director Costas Spanos. “Their promising innovations will make important contributions to health care, sustainability and the algorithms that are foundational to countless daily activities.”
“The Foundry will not only allow these inventors to hone their own ideas, but they will also gain insights to accelerate their research and professional development,” said CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden. “Our industry partners are always looking for talented recruits, and this program will prepare them well for the workforce, whether as startup founders or valuable future employees.”
Wide-ranging origin stories and interests
The latest cohort features inventors who hail from across the world, based in multiple CITRIS campuses. They found each other in a variety of ways: classmates who met at a college party in the U.K. looking to save lives with improved medical technology, childhood friends eager to reduce consumer waste, and professors and students working together to bring their research to market. They offer a breadth of expertise, with academic backgrounds in religious studies, computational media, microbiology and more.
“We’re very excited to support this new cohort in translating their science, research and technology into meaningful impact in society,” said CITRIS Foundry Director Kira Gardner. “It’s no surprise that the majority of this group are addressing challenges relating to health, given the current world crises. CITRIS and the University of California provide them the perfect ecosystem of best-in-class innovation, always done through a people-centered approach.”
Improving health outcomes, for everyone
Nearly half of the cohort’s projects center around health issues — from the dangerous proliferation of antibiotic-resistant disease, addressed by superbug-battler MycoPhage Therapeutics, to the frustrations of inflexible patient monitoring software, made modular by PIMAP, to the perpetual struggle to diagnose cancer earlier, taken on by LincRNA.
Several teams seek to examine health inequity and the lack of resources available for patients and providers alike with their inventions. One group, Immergo Labs, has created a telehealth platform for physical therapists to treat patients through virtual reality, or VR, headsets.
“The technology is getting more powerful and more affordable,” said Aviv Elor, co-founder of Immergo Labs and a doctoral student in computational media at UC Santa Cruz. “We’ve had a global health crisis, and our technology is moving forward. We recognize we live in a virtual world right now.”
Debbie Yuen, who is seeking a master’s degree in design at UC Berkeley, was inspired to launch Project Euphemia by someone she loves — her sister, who is nonverbal.
“I have seen my sister lack friendships because people didn’t see the point in becoming friends with someone they couldn’t communicate with,” Yuen said in an email.
Yuen and her team are creating a mobile application that helps nonverbal people communicate with speaking people. She hopes this project will help break down barriers to build a more inclusive society.
International team Prana, with co-founders in the U.S. and the U.K., is developing a device that can split one ventilator safely among up to four patients, maximizing the number of people who can benefit from one piece of equipment. Health care professionals can use this technology not only in emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also in less resourced communities across the world.
“No life is more important than the other,” said Prana co-founder Abhi Ghavalkar, a master’s degree student in design at UC Berkeley. “Everyone deserves equal treatment.”
Increasing transparency across the board
Just as Prana believes everyone deserves equal treatment, the Docking Infrastructure Smart Energy Systems team believes everyone in the air transportation industry should be held to the same efficiency standards.
The DISES team hopes to reduce energy use in the air transportation system by using artificial intelligence to monitor energy consumption at airports. DISES formed after a class project assigned by team advisor, Jasenka Rakas, deputy director of UC Berkeley’s National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research and a continuing lecturer in transportation engineering. They realized that efficiency standards were not being applied uniformly across all airlines, and they knew they had the tools to address the problem.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” said co-founder Pietro Antonelli, a doctoral student in engineering and project management at UC Berkeley. “We’re just trying to make sure that the techniques already being used by some stakeholders are being used by all stakeholders, allowing us to improve sustainability across aviation.”
TAO Trees also features a collaboration between students and faculty. Miguel Á. Carreira-Perpiñán, a professor of computer science and engineering at UC Merced, and several graduate students have developed a decision tree algorithm that is more accurate and explainable than previous decision trees. They plan to apply it in spaces where people expect to know how decisions are made.
“In recent years, the issue of interpretability, transparency and fairness has become really topical,” said Carreira-Perpiñán. “With neural networks, it is very difficult to understand how they reach a decision and to question whether they are biased or fair, for example. This product can potentially be used to fix those issues.”
Helping shoppers and students achieve their goals
KwikKart and Wonderfil intend to improve different aspects of the consumer experience. The former, founded by fraternity brothers Aaron Gyure and Sean Houlihan, will save customers money through a personalized app and retail shopping experience. The latter, started by longtime family friends Mia Eichel and Shiloh Sacks, will reduce plastic use throughout the distribution process by manufacturing and installing bulk product refill stations.
Beecoming, a project started by Danqing Zhou, an MBA candidate at UC Berkeley, will use artificial intelligence to provide personalized information for Chinese students about the U.S. higher education system, which she said many international students regard as out of their reach and opaque to navigate.
Zhou said that she was originally not a good student in China, but after studying in Australia, she “fell in love with different perspectives” and realized she wanted to study abroad for her master’s degree as well.
After enduring the rigorous and often confusing process of applying to graduate school in America, Zhou decided that she wanted to make the path easier for those who come after her, to make their dreams more accessible.
“Because I had this seed planted in my heart, I worked hard and studied hard,” said Zhou. “A lot of my friends saw me as an example and changed their lives as well.”
Full List of Fall 2021 Teams
Founders: Yonglin Situ, Danqing Zhou
Beecoming aims to help Chinese students improve their applications to U.S. colleges with personalized recommendations generated by artificial intelligence.
Docking Infrastructure Smart Energy Systems
Founders: Pietro Achatz Antonelli, Lukas Klikowicz, Parham Rouzbahani
Advisor: Jasenka Rakas
DISES wants to reduce energy costs and emissions for docking infrastructure by improving the monitoring and predictability of energy use.
Founders: Aviv Elor, Michael Powell, Ash Robbins
Immergo Labs will increase accessibility to physical therapists through virtual reality appointments and gamifying rehabilitation exercises.
Founders: Aaron Gyure, Sean Houlihan
KwikKart offers retail customers a faster, more personalized checkout experience using mobile apps, artificial intelligence and a shopping cart which connects to the customer’s mobile device.
Founders: Daniel Kim, Johanna Kim
LincRNA plans to detect RNA in blood tests in order to identify lung and pancreatic cancers earlier in cancer development, when they are more curable.
Founders: Dheyazen Alseelwe, Sam Berry, Ronald Rodriguez
MycoPhage Therapeutics aims to use bacteriophages, or bacteria-damaging viruses, to eliminate antibiotic-resistant genes in bacteria so that antibiotics work on the bacteria.
Founder: Katia Obraczka
PIMAP creates software that monitors patients to better track their well-being.
Founders: Abhi Ghavalkar, Zach Mudge
Prana is developing a device to optimize healthcare access by enabling up to four patients to share one hospital ventilator safely, allowing scarce resources to benefit more people.
Founders: Debbie Yuen, Jeanny Yuen
Euphemia plans to build a platform for nonverbal people with disabilities to communicate and form community.
Founders: Miguel Á. Carreira-Perpiñán, Magzhan Gabidolla, Yerlan Idelbayev, Arman Zharmagambetov
TAO Trees intends to make decision trees more accurate and interpretable, in order to reduce bias and better audit algorithms for unwanted biases.
Founders: Amelia Eichel, Shiloh Sacks
Wonderfil aims to reduce single use plastic consumption by installing easy-to-use bulk refill stations for an array of consumer products.