Published April 20, 2023
A Nikola Tesla-inspired compact alternative to solar panels. A shower chair attachment to reduce strain on caregivers. A puff-counting device to guide vapers on their journey to quitting.
Equipped with a diverse range of business proposals, three School of Engineering and Applied Sciences students are among the finalists for the University at Buffalo's Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition (Panasci TEC).
Senior mechanical engineering students Dominic LaVigne and Marcus Yuen and industrial engineering PhD student Courtney Burris represent three of the final six teams whittled down from 37 first-round pitches.
They will make their final presentations next week for a chance to win $65,000 in startup funding. The second-place team takes home $10,000.
Long-form presentation to judges will be held April 24, while two-minute public presentations will be held from 6-9 p.m. April 25 at the Center for the Arts. Winners will be announced following brief deliberation by the judges, during which guests can network with each other in the center’s atrium.
Created by the UB School of Management and UB Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships, the 23rd annual Panasci TEC brings together students from science, technology, business and other disciplines to maximize their potential and create viable businesses in Western New York.
LaVigne’s inspiration for his company, Exergi, came from an unlikely source: empty parking lots.
Looking to invent renewable energy tech, he thought about how much solar energy is wasted on black asphalt on sunny days.
“I started playing around with all kinds of ideas of how to recollect that energy,” LaVigne says. “Eventually, I fell down a rabbit hole of Nikola Tesla videos, and learned about some of his favorite mechanical inventions, many of which have been left in history. From there, it has just been a process of constant improvements.”
The result is the Solar Turbine, a compact device that generates electricity by boiling water into steam that spins a bladeless turbine. The steam is cooled back into the water in a separate tank, thus repeating the process.
LaVigne says the Solar Turbine is more accessible to the average American household than rooftop solar panels, as it’s small enough to be placed in yards and costs approximately $1,000 less than the average solar panel.
“Solar panels work using a chemical process from the energy of sunlight, whereas the Solar Turbine is a fully mechanical device,” LaVigne says. “This makes it cheaper, eliminates the supply chain issues of silicon, and offers an alternative to panels that can be placed in your backyard with a much smaller footprint.”
LaVigne and his partner, School of Management student Daniel Chan, have a five-year goal to scale Exergi into a renewable energy manufacturing company headquartered in Buffalo.
“By renovating abandoned factories, it will provide a strong job market fueled by a product that reduces cost of living,” LaVigne says.
When Burris’ father, Robert, was battling colon cancer, bathing independently became a challenge.
Less than six months after his death in 2020, Burris began pitching a shower chair attachment that aims to make bathing easier on the caregiver and care receiver.
“This journey has been emotional, but ultimately cathartic,” Burris says. “Caring for and then losing my dad was the worst thing I experienced, but out of it something truly beautiful was born.”
She and University of Rochester PhD student Brandon Burris’ business, RHM Innovations Inc., describes itself as a mission-driven company developing assistive bath technologies inspired by shared familial loss.
Their first product, the Aide-ing Arm, is a bathing system that provides care staff with total control over the flow of water without having to hold the showerhead. Burris says it provides a more comfortable experience for the resident, reduces strain on the care staff, and eliminates water spray outside of the shower, decreasing the risk of slips and falls.
This is the third straight year that RHM Innovations has been a Panasci TEC finalist, winning second place and $10,000 last year.
That funding, along with an additional $30,000 won from two University of Rochester competitions, have helped RHM Innovations file a utility patent for the Aide-ing Arm and partner with Tresca Designs in Buffalo to design and build prototypes.
Regardless of this year’s Panasci TEC results, Burris plans to work full-time with RHM Innovations upon graduation. However, if they won, Burris says the funding would sustain them until they secure investors, help them produce a small batch of product to demonstrate and sell, and hire interns for the summer.
They’re currently in negotiations for the first order of Aide-ing Arms.
“We are so close to actually helping people,” Burris says.
Yuen’s company, Liminal, aims to help users limit their vaping on their way to kicking the habit altogether. Their product combines a puff-counting device that attaches to most vaporizers and an artificial intelligence-assisted app to track users’ nicotine consumption and provide personalized guidance.
“With this data, we can parse it into our AI-driven algorithm where users can quit based on their specific habits. Not only this, but we also use cognitive behavioral therapy and gamification to make the experience a lot better,” Yuen says. “A user might open their phone and see a daily and weekly goal of when not to vape. When a user reaches their goal, they gain experience and they can see how many fewer hits they took, as well as the money saved.”
Yuen, who oversees 3D modeling and prototyping, says developing the product’s software has taught him much about coding.
“The most enjoyable part is seeing my team thrive in pitches and networking with people who are doing the same thing,” he says.
Yuen’s Liminal partners include School of Management students Seiyu Whang,
Nina Valenzuela, Kelly Luu and Ryan Sellinger. They plan to conduct research and development through mid-2024 and launch their product by 2025.