By Published: April 16, 2021

NVC14 finalists celebrate together on Zoom

NVC14 finalists celebrate together on Zoom

In its second year in a virtual setting, the New Venture Challenge (NVC), CU Boulder’s premier entrepreneurial startup program and competition, dazzled with high energy and even higher-flying ideas curated by CU Boulder students vying for their share of $150,000 in prize money.

The 13th annual event––dubbed NVC14 for superstition’s sake because, according to emcee and Associate Professor of Law Brad Bernthal, “We could not risk the jinx”––began with a more serious tone than in years past as Bernthal took a moment to reflect on the trials of the past year.

“There’s been no shortage of problems that have picked us over the past 13 months,” Bernthal, who co-founded NVC, said. “Let’s take a moment and reflect on what we’ve lost over the past year and take a moment to be grateful for those heroes who have emerged in ways big and small over the past year as well.”

Equipping heroes in our communities quickly became the theme of the evening.

HUG Solutions team members demonstrate the PortaVax device

HUG Solutions team members Claire Meyer and Evan Kirk demonstrate how thermal testing for the PortaVax device is set up. Photo submitted.

The winner of the challenge, HUG Solutions, drew inspiration from the doctors and vaccine distributors and administrators working to end the COVID-19 pandemic by developing PortaVax, a portable vaccine transportation cooler capable of carrying mRNA vaccines at -70 degrees Celsius for four days.

“I’m so speechless,” Brayden Shelley, a CU Boulder senior mechanical engineering student and CEO of HUG Solutions. “Our whole team has been incredible working through the challenges that we have had. We have all worked so hard on this project and I couldn’t be more proud of our team.”

Life-saving innovations 

While PortaVax won the grand prize of $30,000 cash in addition to a $25,000 investment, the pitch wasn’t the only one of the night with an end goal of improving the health and safety of others. Five of the six finalists’ startups centered around products or technologies aimed at increasing safety in the workplace, providing a more tangible training experience or developing a new way to mass-produce life-saving drugs.

The motivation behind Dustin Ramsey’s company Sarus is to make every day on a worksite safer than the day before. The startup’s 3D rangefinder will allow site managers to make precise measurements on job sites in order to develop safe lift plans for construction projects that involve heavy machinery.

NVC14 results

  • 1st place: HUG Solutions ($30,000 + $25,000 investment offer)
  • 2nd place: Sarus ($21,000 + $25,000 investment offer)
  • 3rd place: ToobTek ($16,000)
  • 4th place: Seedling Biosystems ($13,000)
  • T-5th place: Orbital Biodesign ($10,000)
  • T-5th place: LGBT50 ($10,000) 

“It’s all about safety in construction,” Ramsey, an electrical and computer engineering student, said. “We came at this problem with a goal of bringing more people home at the end of the day.”

Third-place recipient ToobTek saw a similar opportunity, developing an improved intubation training method for medical professionals through an anatomically accurate model of the human airway, 3D printed with a tissue-like plastic.

Two other finalists, Seedling Biosystems and Orbital Biodesign, brought their own unique ideas to the table. Seedling Biosystems concept uses soybeans to scale production of major and minor cannabinoids (CBD) through synthetic biology. 

Orbital Biodesign aims to improve blood flow for surgeons who spend hours on their feet by developing a device incorporating robotic technology into a sleeve that goes around the lower leg, reducing the probability of venous insufficiency and varicose veins. Founder Dr. Danielle Carroll, currently pursuing dual-masters degrees in bioastronautics and engineering management at CU Boulder, said the NVC experience has been invaluable.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to trust my judgment,” Carroll said. “I’ve had really resounding support, which has really blown me away.”

Into the future

This year’s NVC challenge has proved ideas can come from anywhere. One of the program’s pillars is to collapse the campus, providing an opportunity for CU Boulder students, graduates, faculty, staff and anyone else from the campus community to pitch their idea.

LGBT50 was awarded $10,000 for their software-enabled, influencer marketing agency focusing on the LGBTQ+ community on TikTok and Instagram by connecting brands with prominent influencers who align with their campaign goals. Capitalizing on the surge in popularity of TikTok, the company helped its top client earn 26 million views for one campaign in its first year.

“We started out as an e-commerce store, but then we saw TikTok start blowing up and we knew we had to jump into this,” co-founder Thomas Savage said.

To date, 900 CU startups have competed in NVC, and the competition has awarded more than $700,000 in funding to startups since 2017. This funding allows an idea developed by students to transform into useful and impactful tools, while also providing them with a tangible next step to advance their product.

For PortaVax, that next step might include getting the next generation of Buff innovators involved.

“As a team of seniors, we are all graduating in May but we are excited to continue progressing PortaVax,” said project manager Claire Meyer. “We are looking to go through a business accelerator, perhaps Catalyze CU, and may even come back to the mechanical engineering department to sponsor another senior design team to continue work on PortaVax next year.”