Aeronics and uTranslated, startups developed at the University of Pittsburgh, are two of the 40 Best University Startups 2017, according to the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2).
At the council's University Startups Conference and Demo Day earlier this spring, the Pitt students and alumni from Aeronics and uTranslated learned how their companies fit into economic growth trends.
“We discussed how local and national policy has the potential to influence new economic development in the Pittsburgh region, and the state and nation as a whole,” said Aeronics CEO Blake Dube (ENGR ’17) of meetings held with the staff of several Pennsylvania congress members. “The discussion was honest and meaningful, and I got the sense that there is a real desire to continue the upward trend of entrepreneurship and innovation in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.”
“Student entrepreneurship is accelerating at Pitt, and we are both stimulating and meeting that demand with more experiential resources and programs,” said Greg Coticchia, director of the Blast Furnace student accelerator, where both Aeronics and uTranslated were nurtured along the way.
A Breath of Fresh “Aer”
Then a junior, in summer 2015, Dube was researching gas storage problems in the Hypothetical Materials Lab of Chris Wilmer, an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Dube noticed a lack of research on oxygen storage and wondered how he could contribute to this field. Partnering with Wilmer, he wanted to improve a device that is commonly used by people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory illnesses — the oxygen tank.
With Wilmer acting as an advisor, Dube created the mediPOD, a tank that increases the storage efficiency of oxygen. Imagine the difference between a can of soda and a 2-liter bottle — that’s roughly the difference between the mediPOD and a standard tank.
“Our idea was to make something that wasn’t so big and bulky, that wasn’t so potentially dangerous, that made a lower impact on the patient’s life, and the easiest way to do that is to try to make something that’s smaller, lighter weight and lower pressure, which is what we’ve done here,” said Dube.
The device became the basis of their startup Aeronics, whose staff also includes engineering PhD student Alec Kaija and recent graduate Mark Spitz (EDUC ’17).
Since the mediPOD was introduced, Dube has heard from others with family members who struggle with their traditional oxygen tanks.
“Just since starting the idea, I’ve gotten neighbors and even competition judges who have come out and contacted us and said, ‘Hey, my relative has [COPD], and they are very interested in [the mediPOD]. This could really benefit them,’” he said.
Since graduating, Dube now focuses solely on his duties as CEO of Aeronics and on plans to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the innovation.
The Language of Business
A whiteboard on wheels acts as a door between uTranslated and the other startups headquartered in cubicles at the shared office space at East Liberty's AlphaLab. Behind that whiteboard, CEO John Frazier (GSPIA ’15) and Nicole Xu (GSPIA ’16) continue to translate what was once a pitch into a fluent business.
uTranslated’s origins trace back to the Pitt Innovation Institute’s 2015 Startup Blitz. Frazier and Xu, along with Lujing Gao (GSPIA ’16) attended separately and formed a team at the event.
Prior to enrolling at the University, Frazier had taught in Hong Kong, Xu had been a financial analyst and Gao, who has since left the company, had been employed as a translator. Drawing from their international experiences, they created a pitch for uTranslated, a platform with verified English and Chinese translators at prices that are more reasonable than those for similar services.
The team was awarded first place and $2,500 at Startup Blitz. The monetary prize was contingent on uTranslated’s participation in Blast Furnace, which eventually led the now-Pitt alumni Frazier and Xu to continue the business at AlphaLab.
uTranslated’s offerings have found a niche in subtitling and business and marketing communications, including ad campaigns, brochures and websites.
Aeronics and uTranslated both credit the Innovation Institute with their success.
“It’s amazing to see just in over a year, [the Innovation Institute’s] become this bustling, well done and very well iterated approach to cultivating entrepreneurship within Pitt,” Frazier said.