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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Skywalk, Therrapu, Active Heirs take top prizes in Derby $100K New Ventures Competition

The Gordon Institute, which houses the Derby Entrepreneurship Center, is pictured on April 21.

​​The Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts announced the winners of the $100k New Ventures Competition following the virtual final round of competition on April 8. First-place winners included startups dedicated to technological innovation, advancements in wound care and building Black generational wealth.

This competition, which is in its 19th year, allows Tufts students and alumni to pitch their own innovative business plans to a panel of judges to win cash prizes and other resources worth over $100,000 total to help further their ventures. Participants can pitch ideas in one of three categories, including General Technology, Healthcare and Life Science and Social Impact. 

The competition spanned multiple months with three rounds that narrowed down competitors. The first round was an application that involved written components as well as the teams’ video pitch. 

Competitors are then chosen to advance to the semifinal round. Ashira Pelt, one of the members of team Active Heirs, described how this round of competition was conducted. 

“The semifinals [were] when we had our live [virtual] pitch … we had three different judges, and they were each different types of investors or social impact entrepreneurs in their own right,” Pelt, a first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School, told the Daily. “[Following your pitch], the investors ask you five minutes’ worth of questions afterwards and … you really have to be on your toes because they ask some pretty hard-hitting questions.”

In the past, the semifinal and final rounds of competition were held in person, but this has not been possible in recent years due to COVID-19 restrictions. Elaine Chen, director of the DEC and Cummings family professor of the practice in entrepreneurship, said that transitioning the competition to a virtual format allowed for more students and alumni to participate in a more equitable process.

“We realized that by going virtual, we have eliminated all geographical barriers,” Chen wrote in an email to the Daily. “As a result, we were able to open the competition to students and alumni all over the world. People called in from China, India, Kenya, France, Italy, and everywhere within the US. Going virtual democratizes access and helps us serve more students and alumni.”

Chen explained that in the future, the DEC may experiment with hybrid or in-person event formats but will always keep an online option to maintain equal access for all students and alumni.

Following the semifinal round, 14 teams advanced to the finals. The final round began with welcome addresses from Chen, DEC Professor of the Practice Jack Derby, Dean ad interim of the School of Engineering Kyongbum Lee, University President Anthony Monaco and Executive Director of the Gordon Institute Kevin Oye.

Participants then moved into separate meetings for each of the three tracks where the final pitching rounds began. Like the semifinal round, each team had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of entrepreneurial experts, who then were able to ask competitors questions.

A period of deliberation by judges followed before the winners were announced. Each of the three tracks had three winners announced, all of which received capital and other resources to help further their venture.

Skywalk, which according to its creators is “building a sensorized wristband that makes anyone an augmented reality native by translating hand motions into digital actions,” took home first place honors in the General Technology category. Markit Social, an app designed to revolutionize how people plan their own events and share them with others, won second place in this track.

In the Healthcare and Life Science category, Therrapu won the top prize. Rachel Kiehne, a senior who was part of team Therrapu, explained the purpose of this company.

“[Therrapu] is essentially a company where we use smart fibers or … nanothreads to integrate them into bandages,” Kiehne said. “In this case, it was bandages for diabetic foot ulcers, and ultimately these bandages can detect infection, monitor the wound healing progress and then provide antibiotic treatment.”

Lumilin Therapeutics, which won second place in the Healthcare and Life Science category, developed an implantable cell therapy designed to allow Type 1 diabetics to more closely control their blood sugar levels.  

In the Social Impact track, Active Heirs took home the top prize. Active Heirs is designed to empower Black heirs in the U.S. with the resources and knowledge they need to build generational wealth and combat land loss. Pelt explained the problems that disproportionately affect Black heirs who inherit land. 

“There are a lot of legal systems that have been put in place for heirs’ property rights owners … that really prohibit [people] from being able to do much with the land and put families in a situation [where it is] easy for their land to be taken away,” Pelt said. “The more I talked to other Black families that are in similar situations, I realized that this is … a problem throughout the Black community, especially the rural [southern] Black community.”

New Line Tire, which won second place in the Social Impact track, is a business that plans to combat tire waste by recycling the rubber from old tires into new tires. This will help prevent the growth of tire graveyards, which pose a threat to neighboring communities when toxic emissions are released due to spontaneous fires that arise. 

In addition to the winners of the $100k New Ventures Competition, some participants were awarded the Paul and Elizabeth Montle Prize, the Friedman Nutrition Innovation Institute Prize, the Stephen and Geraldine Ricci Interdisciplinary Prize and the Cummings Property Rent Credit. Two women-led teams from each track were given a membership to the WE Global Studio, a digital start-up resource designed for women entrepreneurs. 

The day of the $100k New Ventures Competition’s final round, the DEC was also able to share the news of a $1.2 million gift to the Tufts Venture Accelerator, which is an 11-week-long program that acts as an educational accelerator for Tufts entrepreneurs. The donation was sponsored by Earle Yaffa (E’61), Kim Hartman (A’85), Alan Hartman and the Flom Foundation. 

Chen urged students to learn more about and become involved in entrepreneurial pursuits using the DEC’s resources.

“Every year, we are proud and humbled to see the amazing work of our ‘Jumbopreneurs,’” Chen wrote. “It is inspirational to see them tackle wicked problems in the world with their passion, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit and drive. The hardest part is to take that first step … take an entrepreneurial course with us, or join Derby Entrepreneurship Center in an Innovation Month event in September, and we can help you learn to apply the entrepreneurial method everywhere you go.”