Nanoly won the $50,000 grand prize in the annual Duke Start-Up Challenge Friday.
Nanoly won the $50,000 grand prize in the annual Duke Start-Up Challenge Friday.

At the 13th-annual Duke Start-Up Challenge finale, Nanoly—an undergraduate-led vaccine distribution project—took home the $50,000 grand prize.

Three teams pitched their business plans to a group of 12 judges at the competition’s final round Friday. The event, which took place in Geneen Auditorium at the Fuqua School of Business, marked the end of the student entrepreneurship contest, which began in November. The event featured keynote speaker Richard Lee, founder and former CEO of Hosted Solutions LLC—an information technology consulting company based in Raleigh.

Nanoly was the overall winner out of a record 118 student startup businesses that entered the contest, said Olgun Kukrer, co-president of the Start-Up Challenge and second-year MBA candidate. The other two competing finalists were neurosurgical innovator CranioVation and electricity-access project Zamsolar. In selecting the winner, the judges’ votes were weighted 80 percent, and the audience members’ votes were weighted 20 percent.

“All of the prize money will go directly to project expenses,” said junior Ting-Ting Zhou, co-founder of Nanoly. “We need to raise $1.5 million to advance from research to commercialization.”

Nanoly’s product, NanoShield, is a polyethylene glycol-based polymer that would enable vaccines to be transported and delivered without refrigeration, Zhou said in her pitch. She noted that more than 2 million people die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases­—largely because they live in locations that are difficult to access. NanoShield could reduce the costs of vaccinating people in remote areas and improve the success rate of vaccine transportation.

Out of the three contestants, Nanoly’s product is the most appealing to investors, and the team presented the most thorough research, said competition judge Melissa Bernstein, Trinity ’87 and co-founder and co-owner of toy company Melissa and Doug LLC.

“I was blown away by all three,” Bernstein noted. “But if you’re an investor, you need to think about it from a business sense.”

Zhou serves as Nanoly’s business leader; Nanxi Liu, a senior at University of California at Berkeley, leads polymer development research; and Crystal Lee, a junior at Stanford University, leads product testing. NanoShield technology, which was developed in a research lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a patented product. GlaxoSmithKline—one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies—has expressed interest in the technology, Zhou added.

“Nanoly is pursuing a herculean task,” Bernstein said. “But if their product works scientifically, they are bound for success. The size of their market is huge and already partnering with Glaxo—that’s really telling.”

CranioVation, headed by Vijay Agarwal, a second-year neurosurgery resident at Duke Medicine, developed a brain aneurysm treatment device made out of nonmetal materials, so post-operative MRI or CT imaging of the brain is not obscured. The market is specific, Agarwal noted, but the product is vital for aneurysm patients because doctors cannot assess progress or complications after operations if imaging is obscured by metal devices.

The third finalist, Zamsolar, led by senior James Sawabini, aims to solve energy poverty in East Africa with portable solar products. Zamsolar will pilot the project in Zambia, where more than 80 percent of the population lives without access to electricity, Sawabini said. He plans to move to Zambia after graduating to distribute inexpensive solar-powered electronic devices to those who cannot otherwise afford them.

Sawabani noted that the Start-Up Challenge experience taught him how to run a business and interact with investors.

“At each stage of the competition, the number of investors grew,” Sawabini said. “We got incredibly constructive criticism and gained access to resources.”

Kukrer said he was pleased with the growth of interest in the Start-Up Challenge—both in competitors and audience size. He added that more than 350 judges helped pick the finalists.

The Chronicle is one of nine sponsors of the Duke Start-Up Challenge.