Students take classroom success to the boardroom
Winner and finalists in TEC VenturePrize student business plan competition are all companies with UAlberta connections.
By BRYAN ALARY
(Edmonton) Sometimes, words click. That’s the whole point of Creative Online Writing, or COW, the first educational app developed by startup venture Alieo Games. COW is an online app designed to improve the language skills of students in grades 3 to 8 by making writing fun and interactive.
U of A computing science PhD student Kit Chen co-founded Alieo Games with classmates Neesha Desai and Nathaniel Rossol, and retired teacher Chris McMahen, after sketching out the idea for a writing app last fall.
The inspiration for the startup business—winner of this year’s TEC VenturePrize student business plan competition and $20,000—dates back to last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In her keynote, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asked her audience, the world’s largest gathering of female technologists, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Ask yourself and go do it.”
Those words clicked with Chen and Desai, who already enjoyed programming games for her niece, and soon Alieo Games was born.
“None of us had started a business before and it really frightened us. We had an idea and we didn’t know if was commercially viable or how far we wanted to take it,” she explained.
Stepping outside the comfort zone is starting to pay off, with Alieo Games participating in local hackathons, attending the Fireside Chat series of business startup seminars and pitching to investors at the Beaver’s Den run through the Faculty of Engineering’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, and recently demoing at the U of A’s eHUB. The company has officially incorporated and the team has expanded to include graphic designer Joel Koop.
The company’s business plan won $10,000 through the U of A’s AVCatalyst Student Business Competition, putting them in touch with TEC Edmonton—who have been “really supportive,” Chen said. Every honour like the VenturePrize and every pitch the company does helps connect them with educators and parents looking for solutions to help students write fluently.
“There's a real pull out there for quality educational technology that can help students improve literacy and language skills.”
To learn more about Alieo Games or demo the educational app, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every minute, a child dies of malaria. The disease, according to the World Health Organization, claims a million lives a year and puts 3.4 billion people at risk—half the world’s population.
Tackling a public health issue of this magnitude and saving only a fraction would do a world of good, which is precisely the goal of SmartCount Health. The health-tech startup was created by a team of U of A students and graduates who are developing fast, affordable and reliable screening technology to help patients with malaria and other diseases such as dengue, sickle-cell anemia and tuberculosis.
“The end goal of our research is the betterment of life,” said SmartCount Health co-founder Naresh Miriyala, originally from India, where malaria, dengue and tuberculosis are major health concerns. “If we are able to help even a fraction, it will be a great benefit to society.”
SmartCount Health was born from research at the U of A, where the four co-founders met. Miriyala is a PhD candidate in chemical and materials engineering; Yashashvi Purwar graduated with a master’s in chemical engineering and process control, Naga Siva Kumar Gunda is a recent PhD graduate and now post-doctoral fellow in mechanical engineering; and Krishna Kishore Junga is a master’s student in chemical and materials engineering.
The idea for SmartCount originated in the lab of Purwar’s graduate supervisor, Sirish Shah, who developed an image-processing sensor for the oilsands industry. That was developed into an algorithm for malaria screening that wouldn’t require large-scale laboratories.
“We want to bring diagnostics from the lab and create more access for the people,” explained Purwar.
Moving from the lab to the business world came with a steep learning curve. But with a supportive research environment at the U of A and expertise from TEC Edmonton, SmartCount stood as the runner-up in the TEC VenturePrize student business plan competition. The honour provides further encouragement to pursue their dream, said Miriyala.
“Creativity always has acceptance in the market and every innovative idea has huge potential. It’s just that we need to be persistent to push the boundaries.”
When Albert Leung was partway through his MBA in technology commercialization at the U of A, he sought an opportunity to apply what he was learning in the classroom in a real-world setting.
What he found was Livi Design, a company founded on the principles of sustainable, compatible and innovative technology. The company’s first product, the Casetop, essentially supes up your smartphone, giving it the capabilities of a laptop.
For its efforts, Livi Design was named a finalist in this year’s TEC VenturePrize student business plan competition.
“It’s very exciting and a little bit unexpected,” said Leung, who is head of business development at Livi Design. “This recognition really validates our business and product and will definitely help us build momentum and awareness.”
The invention of Edmonton-based founder John Andrus, the device allows users to plug their smartphone into Casetop, with the phone providing the brain and extended battery life—up to 30 hours. Leung, who also holds a master’s in medical sciences and bachelor of science from the U of A, joined the team after meeting Andrus at the Banff Venture Forum in 2013. They’re joined by accountant Henry Choy, another U of A alumnus with degrees in arts and commerce.
Since Leung came aboard, Livi Design has officially incorporated and developed a business plan, and is in the process of developing its first market prototype with NovaNAIT using seed funding from an investor. The company has a strong relationship with TEC Edmonton, providing advice and connecting the team to mentorship.
The company might be small, but everyone knows their role and is willing to work toward a bright future.
“We’re very agile and flexible with such a small team,” Leung said. “We trust each other to handle things; with such a small team, trust and communication are easier to accomplish.”