UW Startups Look to Improve Bras, Bicycle Ads, Mental Health

Xconomy Seattle — 

The University of Washington campus is so big, with 42,000 students, that it’s impossible to get a handle on everything going on there. But this much I can say for sure: there are some very creative and enterprising students working on fighting brain tumors, improving video editing, and helping young women carry around smartphones in their bras.

This quirky scene was the annual UW Business Plan Competition investment round, held at the Seattle Center’s Exhibit Hall. I was one of 200 judges from the community who were there to evaluate 36 student-run business teams, and ask the hard questions they need to be able to answer if their companies are going to fly. Like all the judges, I had $1,000 of imaginary money to dole out to at least five companies that I thought were the most deserving of actual investment.

This competition has been going for 15 years now, and at least over the last three or four years I’ve been judging, it seems like the overall quality of teams is going up. I’m talking about the ability to get busy people’s attention, explain the business idea in about 60 seconds, and show they have done some real spadework by clearly and honestly answering good questions any investor in their business ought to have. Some of these teams are “dead serious” about creating real companies, as Connie Bourassa-Shaw of the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship put it. Others will just learn a few things to take with them in their careers.

Yesterday’s judging round winnowed down the list of competitors to a “Sweet 16.” The teams who advance will now go on to the final round of judging on May 24, where they will compete for the $25,000 grand prize, a $10,000 second place prize, or one of the two $5,000 “finalist” prizes.

Below are some quick impressions of the fledgling companies I had a chance to meet yesterday:

Biking Billboards

Biking Billboards pays college students $18 an hour to ride a bicycle with advertising sandwich board in tow. Curtis Howell told me that Biking Billboards has already found one important customer in T-Mobile, which turned to the catchy bicycle ad service to put targeted ads in front of customers it wanted to reach on the Microsoft campus. The ultimate goal, Howell says, is to build a national network of about 15 cities, which would enable national advertisers to run targeted ad campaigns, particularly around events with a lot of foot traffic, where the bicycle ads stand out.

Highlight Hunter

Highlight Hunter has developed software that makes it possible for people to wave their hand in front of a camera to make a “cut” just like how a movie director might yell “cut” at the end of a scene. By placing these sort of bookmarks in long stretches of video footage people might take at an event, Highlight Hunter figures it can save people a lot of time and effort on editing video to create highlight reels. It is supposed to work with any digital camera and can be downloaded free on Mac and PC.


JoeyBra certainly had no trouble getting attention, as it had a college student posing in one of its products in a booth at the entrance to the building. The idea is pretty simple—the company makes bras that have a side pocket that can hold a smartphone and keys. Mariah Gentry and Kyle Bartlow, the founders, are betting that they can sell these bras to sorority girls on campus who can’t leave their smartphones at home, but who don’t want to lug them around in a purse.

Stella Therapeutics

Nephi Stella, a professor in the UW pharmacology department, is betting that he’s found a promising new avenue of attack against brain tumors. Stella’s research has uncovered a new target from the class of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which he says is found on glioblastoma cells, but not on healthy neurons. GPCRs are one of the most important classes of drug targets, but many have been impossible for drug developers to hit. This project is still very much in its early days, and Stella isn’t disclosing the name of the GPCR target he’s going after, but he says even though there is strong interest in “unlocking” more GPCRs for drug development, he’s unaware of any other competitors pursuing his target.


This team, which includes people from UW and Seattle University, has its eye on the hot and competitive mobile payment sector. Visupay is looking to use QR codes as the basis for a secure system. Visupay is aiming to create a system that’s easy for financial institutions to use on top of their online payment programs, which takes less of a percentage cut from a merchant’s sales, and which doesn’t require any special equipment for consumers to attach to their smartphones. Visupay is looking to make its money by collecting 25 cents on every transaction it enables over $10.

Back on Track

This startup is developing an online mental health questionnaire. Instead of asking, say, a patient with depression to fill out a 10-point questionnaire with paper and pen before an office visit, Back on Track puts the questionnaire on a tablet or smartphone that transmits the results to the clinic, and analyzes the results with charts and graphs. That should reduce administrative hassle for clinics, and enable them to keep better track of patient outcomes. And if you can do a better job of measuring patient outcomes, then you have the opportunity as a clinician to improve outcomes, says Corey Fagan, a UW psychologist and advisor to the team. Seattle Children’s Hospital has been one of the early adopters testing out the Back on Track system, she says.