Innovation Beat: SuperShroom, Create-a-thon and spinouts

Lens of the Market workshop

This edition of Around the O’s Innovation Beat highlights spinouts, shrooms and student competitions. Innovation Beat is a quarterly roundup of small stories about UO discoveries with big results.

UO spinout Ksana Health wins innovation award

Ksana Health, a company started by University of Oregon researchers, won the social impact award at the 2019 Innovation and Talent Celebration. The award honors local companies, organizations and individuals who champion success through their originality and entrepreneurialism.

Ksana Health uses wearable tech devices to collect mental health information. By monitoring users’ patterns — including sleep, language and activity — Ksana’s products create adaptive reports and can even stage interventions at crucial moments to protect users.

“Ksana Health’s innovation uses mobile computing to provide personalized just-in-time mental health care, using data for good, and making a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Matt Sayre, vice president of the Technology Association of Oregon and one of the judges at the Innovation and Talent Celebration.

Nick Allen, a professor in the Department of Psychology, developed the research behind Ksana Health. The founder of the university’s Center for Digital Mental Health, Allen uses a developmental pathology approach to study how children and adolescents are affected by their environments at key stages in life. He secured a Translational Research Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation in July and has taken Ksana to the marketplace.

“Comparing my experience to some colleagues at other universities who have established startups has made me deeply appreciative of the incredible support we have received from the University of Oregon,” Allen said. “It really speaks to UO's commitment to supporting entrepreneurship and the social impact of our research.” 

To learn more about UO startups and spinout companies, visit the Innovation Partnership Services’ Current Ventures page

‘SuperShroom’ team wins food-themed pitch competition

A team of UO students and local entrepreneurs joined forces to claim victory at the Techstars Startup Weekend pitch competition. The event challenges groups to work together over two-and-a-half intense days to build startup companies and pitch a service or product.

Challenged to solve a problem in the food industry, the team created a new startup called SuperShroom, which leverages the potential health benefits of various mushroom species such as Cordyceps, a genus of fungus sometimes sold as a supplement.

“Why not make a mushroom-based snack food that could use the power of Cordyceps?” said Connor Nolan, an MBA student and member of the winning team. “We figured endurance athletes would appreciate a healthy snack that also gives them a boost of mental clarity.”

The SuperShroom team members didn’t know each other at the onset of the 54-hour innovation challenge, but they collaborated around team member Geoff Falkenberg’s idea of building a local facility to scale up the production of Cordyceps mushrooms.

The fungus grows naturally on caterpillars and can be produced in a lab. It has been used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments and some research suggests the fungus may boost athletic performance. The team interviewed potential customers, produced a prototype and even generated two orders from local gyms to purchase the product when it’s ready.

“We're all still exchanging ideas about the company and we plan on working more on SuperShroom throughout the year,” Nolan said. “It's a lot to take on, but the experience gave us so much momentum moving forward.”

Techstars Startup Weekend was part of Startup Week, organized by the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs teach scientists to see with Lens of the Market

Avinash Bala had his “Eureka!” moment when he noticed that owls’ eyes change when they hear new sounds. The discovery led him to explore how human pupils also react to auditory stimuli, and the research became the basis for a noninvasive method to evaluate hearing loss in infants.

A research associate in the UO’s Institute of Neuroscience, Bala was determined to translate his research into innovation. But before he could form a company, he needed help communicating its potential applications to the medical clinicians in his target audience.

“As researchers, we know our research is good, we know what we are doing is valid, but often we lack the skills and vocabulary to communicate that to the clinicians to learn how to present a product that they can use,” he said. 

Bala found answers through Lens of the Market, a three-stage training and education program that helps scientists and engineers understand and evaluate market needs and develop the full range of skills and vocabulary required for successful translation of their research into commercial ventures.

Bala calls the program “an eye-opener” that allowed him to see the world through the perspective of an entrepreneur. He participated in a Lens of the Market workshop offered through the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and co-sponsored by UO's Materials Science Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

Bala learned to use a whole new vocabulary of terms from the industry world. For example, he now refers to the pupil measuring program he developed as a “platform technology.” He also learned that he was more likely to be successful if he could show multiple marketable applications. As a result, he presents his technology as something that could be applied to pets and to detect hearing loss in people with communication difficulties, as well as its potential as a tool for evaluating hearing loss in infants. 

With his new perspective, Bala was able to talk to clinicians to assess their needs and ended up securing funds from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation through the Translational Research Fund. The program provides seed grants to help cover the direct costs of transforming fundamental research or early stage innovations into more commercially viable products and services or even a new business.

“Now the market research for our potential implementation or translation of our research underwrites every grant we write,” he said.

Interested researchers should contact Janet Macha with any questions.

Seeking participants for January ‘Create-a-thon’

The Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship and the School of Journalism and Communication are seeking creative thinkers, designers and strategists to participate in the January “Create-a-thon” advertising sprint, a 24-hour competition that challenges participants to produce marketing campaigns for local nonprofit organizations. Competitors will have the opportunity to meet the people behind the missions of local nonprofits as they make materials to boost their portfolios and work with local marketing professionals as mentors.

The “Create-a-thon” starts Jan. 24, 2020. Students and community members interested in participating can contact the event organizers with questions. The deadline to sign up is Dec. 20.

—By Adam Spencer, Innovation Partnership Services