Caltech Student Start-Ups Dive Into the “Shark Tank” in Bill Gross Business Plan Competition


At the inaugural Bill Gross Business Plan Competition, aspiring entrepreneurs pitched start-up ideas to a panel of seasoned investors. In this version of Shark Tank, each team was made up of Caltech undergraduate and graduate students armed with scientific expertise and a vision of how next-generation technology will improve the world.

Fifteen student teams—selected as finalists from 80 total applications—presented their business plans in a day-long event in April to compete for the Bill Gross Prize for Entrepreneurship. The first-place winner would walk away with $30,000, second place with $25,000, and third with $15,000, drawn from a $100,000 prize donation by entrepreneur and Caltech Trustee Bill Gross (BS ’81). Little did students know that all teams would be winners that day. A surprise $100,000 matching donation from private capital firm Sunstone-ALC, combined with Gross’s donation, enabled a $10,000 award to each of the twelve runner-up teams.

A start-up evangelist who has launched multiple companies, Gross taught a science and technology entrepreneurship class at Caltech last fall and is passionate about helping Caltech students bring their ideas to fruition. “Our hope is that with winning this Caltech event, other investors will join you to make your dreams possible,” Gross said at the beginning of the competition.

During the event, each student team had five minutes to pitch their start-up ideas to the three judges: Ajay Kshatriya, partner at Wilson Hill Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests exclusively in Caltech startups; Amanda Cashin (PhD ’06), an advisor at Wilson Hill Ventures; and Dave Licata, president and CFO of TORL BioTherapeutics and executive chairman of 1200 Pharma. Sectors encompassed by the business plans included health care technology, AI tools, sustainability solutions, and more. Groups were judged on the quality of their team dynamic, market opportunity for their company, and differentiation of their technology.

The “elevator pitch” format challenged participants to focus their ideas on the fundamentals. CAD.it, a start-up idea hatched in Gross’s Caltech class by graduate student Aditya Shedge and undergraduates Sarah Hashash and Sarah Yun, is an AI-powered method to convert 2D engineering sketches into 3D computer-aided design (CAD) models. The team presented a video showing the manual process of converting sketches, followed by screenshots of a minimum viable demo of the prototype that would perform the process automatically.

“We all took the course for similar reasons; all of us were interested in entrepreneurship,” says Shedge, who has a background in engineering and manufacturing and conceived the initial idea for CAD.it. “We came up with our own ideas and shared them with the class, and the three of us aligned on this one for its good market opportunity.”

Aditya Shedge (center) poses with Bill Gross (left) and Fred Farina (right), Caltech's Chief Innovation and Corporate Partnerships Officer

Aditya Shedge (center) poses with Bill Gross (left) and Fred Farina (right), Caltech’s Chief Innovation and Corporate Partnerships Officer

Credit: Karen Cohen Photography

CAD.it won first place, earning $30,000 for the team’s transformative idea and thoughtful approach. At the same time, the judges said choosing a winner was difficult because every start-up had outstanding potential.

“We were blown away by the caliber, the energy, the creativity of the ideas, and especially the talent,” Cashin says. “It all comes down to the people, and Caltech’s got A+ talent. This event showcases that there’s a contagious energy around entrepreneurship at Caltech, so this is the beginning of many things to come.”

Caltech’s Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships (OTTCP) oversees not only the Bill Gross Prize but also the Timothy D. Ryan Summer Entrepreneurship Program. The program, funded by entrepreneur Tim Ryan (BS ’78), provides financial support and mentorship for students to develop their innovative ideas into novel commercial products or services.

The winners of the 2024 Timothy D. Ryan Summer Entrepreneurship Program are Audiomatic, an AI-powered video translation and dubbing start-up by undergraduates Nika Chuzhoy and Brian Hu, and ONCOVATE, an AI-tool to support hospitals with cancer care, which was also a finalist for the Bill Gross Prize.

Bill Gross Prize for Entrepreneurship 2024 Winners

First place: CAD.it

CAD.it uses generative AI and computer vision to automate the conversion of 2D engineering sketches into 3D models in CAD software.

Team:

Aditya Shedge, graduate student

Sarah Hashash, fourth-year undergraduate

Sarah Yun, fourth-year undergraduate

Second place: Chiron

Chiron is a personalized AI assistant that learns from and cites medical papers to help patients interpret their medical results.

Team:

Andrea Olsen, first-year undergraduate

Third place: String

String is reimagining the coffee supply chain to increase transparency and quality assurance while increasing profits for farmers and cooperatives in East Africa by directly connecting them with importers and roasters.

Team:

Sean Theuri, second-year undergraduate

Eden Obeng Kyei, second-year undergraduate

Nyasha Makaya, second-year undergraduate

Abdulkarim Mugisha, second-year undergraduate

Other Finalists

Helio

Helio is a biosensor that assesses micronutrients through saliva and aims to provide simple, painless, at-home testing to help parents identify clinical nutritional deficiencies in children with autism.

Team:

Ashley Mo, first-year undergraduate

Aoi Otani, third-year undergraduate (Harvard University)

OcuFlow

OcuFlow is developing a heating eye mask designed to speed up in-eye fluid flow to improve the efficacy of drug treatments for vision-threatening diseases, with the potential to reduce the frequency of necessary treatment injections.

Team:

Stephanie O’Gara, graduate student

Viriya

Viriya applies AI monitoring to data from smart meters that measure electricity use in nonresidential buildings to propose efficiency and sustainability solutions. Viriya has partnered with sustainability leaders at Caltech (and other universities) to design and test its product.

Team:

Aaron Zhao, third-year undergraduate

Kaushik Tota, third-year undergraduate

Avirath Sundaresan, third-year undergraduate

NeuroGuard

NeuroGuard is a stroke detection device designed to be worn while sleeping, with the goal of identifying sleep strokes in order to enable early intervention and medical care.

Team:

Haixu Shen, graduate student

Reza Ghodsi, lecturer

VerifAI

VerifAI offers Contract Decoder, an AI tool aimed at helping renters understand their rights and the jargon within rental lease agreements and other contracts.

Team:

Arjun Pradhan, first-year undergraduate

James Hou, first-year undergraduate

Joray Pieper, first-year undergraduate

Aman Burman, first-year undergraduate

Aditya Mehta, first-year undergraduate

Dhruv Verma, first-year undergraduate

Gautham Kappaganthula, first-year undergraduate

Tunable Aesthetics

Tunable Aesthetics is developing minimally invasive surgical implants that can be shaped and reshaped with high-intensity focused ultrasound.

Team:

Nicole Higdon, graduate student

Gunho Kim (PhD ’23), postdoctoral scholar research associate

kallisto

kallisto aims to identify and track viral RNA in sequencing data to leverage patients’ own viruses for improved gene therapy.

Team:

Laura Luebbert, postdoctoral scholar research associate

ONCOVATE

ONCOVATE is an AI tool that helps hospitals triage cancer patients, using patient and symptom data to recommend genetic tests and assist with outcome forecasting. It is currently in a pilot program stage with Stanford Medicine.

Team:

Arya Khokhar, first-year undergraduate

Albert Huang, first-year undergraduate

Adarsh Kumarappan, first-year undergraduate

Shan Gupta, first-year undergraduate

PulseGuard Technologies

PulseGuard Technologies is an electric-shield technology that prevents biofilm buildup in beer-dispensing systems.

Team:

Bryan Gerber, graduate student

IND CoPilot

IND CoPilot uses an AI model to streamline the investigational new drug (IND) process, bringing together regulatory documents and experimental protocols for the pharmaceutical industry.

Team:

Logan Beharry, third-year undergraduate

Katherine Xu, third-year undergraduate

Desert Farming

Desert Farming is developing microbial communities for algae farms in the desert (where there is abundant unused land) that will sequester carbon dioxide, generate carbon credits, and produce biomaterials like algae bricks and packaging materials.

Team:

Madison Dunitz, graduate student

Helen Wexler, graduate student

Alex Johnson, graduate student

Encryptiest

Encryptiest is developing a novel encryption technology to enable targeted advertising without compromising user privacy.

Team:

Salvador Buse, graduate student

Dylan Bannon (MS ’22)





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