The morning after April Fools Day, it still felt surreal to Mohamad Ali Najia, the former Petit Undergraduate Research Scholar whose Team OculoStaple took second place in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s InVenture Prize competition the night before.
“It has been quite crazy, everything seemed to go by so quickly and then it hits you – this is a great honor,” says Najia, who partnered with Jackie Borinski and Drew Padilla to earn the runner-up prize for a surgical tool, OculoStaple, designed to safely treat ptosis (drooping of the eyelid).
The InVenture Prize competition is an interdisciplinary innovation competition open to all undergraduate students and recent graduates of Georgia Tech. It brings together innovators from all academic backgrounds in an effort to foster creativity, invention, and entrepreneurship. First place and $20,000 went to a team called FlameTechGrill Defender (a safety device for gas grills).
The first and second place teams both received U.S. patent filings by Georgia Tech’s Office of Technology Licensing (a $20,000 value) and a spot in this summer’s Georgia Tech startup accelerator program, Flashpoint.
OcculoStaple, comprised of one current student in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (Padilla) and two recent graduates (Najia and Borinski graduated with their BME degrees in December) won $10,000 in second-place prize money. A third team, Haplit, earned the People’s Choice Award and $5,000.
For OculoStaple, it was another night in the spotlight of campus-wide competition – the team won the fall Capstone Design competition. But InVenture is a little different. For one thing, the spotlight is a little brighter. The event is nicknamed “American Idol for Nerds” because it is televised (Georgia Public Broadcasting is a partner in the event), and teams make their presentations to a panel of judges in front of a raucous, live studio audience of about 1,000.
“Speaking in front of an audience was definitely a new experience, and it was my first time on television,” Najia says. “It was kind of intimidating when one of the producers said, ‘oh, about 50,000 people will probably tune in to watch on TV or live stream.’ And I’m like, ‘great, now you’re telling me this?’”
Of the 300-plus inventors who registered for the InVenture program, six finalists made the televised event last week. And of those, Najia figured his team might have the worst chance of winning because his team was hawking a medical device, “which means we probably have the longest road map to market of the six finalists. We thought that would be a disadvantage.”
It wasn’t. The biggest challenge might have been getting over the stage fright, but the OculoStaple team got its collective nerves under control.
“We kept hearing that once you get on stage you feel more comfortable, you get in the zone, and I never believed it until it actually happened,” Najia says. “But, you know, focus on the judges, focus on your message. I think that’s what did it for us.”
It’s been a busy few months for the fledgling startup since the Capstone competition in December. Recently, OculoStaple was awarded an early-stage medical device grant from the Atlanta Clinical Translational Science Institute (ACTSI), valued at $3,000. And work on developing the device will continue, even as the students consider where, when, and if to go to graduate school.
“We definitely need to do more translational studies on OculoStaple,” Najia says. Mainly, they’ve tested the device on biomaterial models of the human eye. “Now we’re getting to the point where we need to test it on a living system.”
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience