Sparking Innovation Cincinnati Style
Spring is here and Cincinnati's innovators have a fresh chance to share their latest brainchildren.
Come May 1 the second annual Cincinnati Innovates
contest will fling the doors open to anyone with inspiration and an original idea (or ideas) to test.
In the past, creatives with entrepreneurial spirits quietly plied their trades in labs, studios and offices. If they struck gold, they relished their often sizable gains with little public recognition or fanfare.
"Entrepreneurs are kind of like the 'Where's Waldo' crew," says Elizabeth Edwards, creator of Cincinnati Innovates. "They don't walk around with a sign announcing they've started a company or are working on a product."
But an innovation doesn't evolve into a thriving business in a vacuum. It needs face-time, social proof, room to grow. And it needs capital. This is where Cincinnati Innovates steps in.
And the results of last year's wildly successful inaugural contest
suggest that Cincinnati has a surplus of innovation on its hands.
"So many of the 273 ideas submitted last year were investment grade deals or businesses," Edwards says. "This made judging them very difficult."
Of the 273 entries, only six were chosen winners. With this level of competition, it behooves aspirants to get a flavor of the ideas that most captivated judges last year, who focused on transformational and technical merit, intellectual property promise and job growth potential in making their evaluations.
One thing that jumps out about last year's entries is the sheer diversity. Among the winners, innovators from all walks of life had ideas and inventions that ranged from the high tech and social media spheres to a $1 fire extinguisher and an improved central venous catheter.
On the high tech side, Jason Heikenfeld took home a win for his energy-saving liquid screen cells that could revolutionize the way we see e-media.
Heikenfeld, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati (UC), began the work on his electrofluidic display technology when Cincinnati-based Sun Chemical approached him in 2006 with an open-ended question: what role could they play in the emerging electronic media market?
"Sun Chemical sells segments that go into printed media," says Heikenfeld. "So they realized they need a horse in the [electronic] race."
After a bit of experimenting, Heikenfeld discovered a way to display digital media while retaining the quality of print media in 2007. This is what he did:
First, he modified pigments from print media with chemicals from Sun Chemical. Then, he hid the pigments in tiny holes in a substrate. Next, he applied voltage. With voltage the pigments, held in a liquid substance, spread across the surface of the substrate and become visible.
"It's like a spring," Heikenfeld says. "The liquid jumps back to the holes when you turn the voltage off." Heikenfeld is now developing and manufacturing this technology through a local start-up called Gamma Dynamics
Another winner, Michael Bergman, was inspired by the emerging social media market. This impetus gave him the idea to convert his educational board game, 'Numbskull,' into a Facebook application. This will make studying for the SAT test fun and competitive for savvy high school students who use the application on Facebook. And it's moving right along.
"We've made significant process with market research nationwide, modernization of the interface, and content creation," Bergman says. "We've also had talked to potential partners and sponsors."
Like many creative ideas, 'Numbskull' may provide the foundation for a number of spin-offs and departures.
"I'd like to expand and create a wide range of educational products that offer competitive educational experiences in a fun, social media format for all ages of students, running from Jr. High to Grad school," Bergman says.
Yet one of the most compelling realities of last year's line-up was that not all of the winners fired their ideas off from a company's launch pad. Some were still students.
"You always get some wild cards," Edwards says. "Those are the ones that are the really powerful ones that may even save lives."
This is just what Noel Gaulthier, an undergrad design student at UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP), intends to do with FireStop, a $1 fire extinguisher. It all began with an assignment to create a more ergonomical fire extinguisher.
"But I wanted to find out where fire extinguishers were really needed," Gaulthier says. "It did not take long to learn about the urban slums throughout India and the favellas of South America where people live in highly flammable, crowded dwellings with little to no access to municipal fire departments." Armed with this information, he'd found his project.
"I wanted to design the fire extinguisher to not only fit into those economies, but also to become a part of them," Gaulthier says.
When designing this stripped down fire extinguisher, Gaulthier was inspired by an unlikely source: bottle rockets.
"I became inspired by solid fuel model rocket engines - the ones in the little cardboard tubes - and thought, 'Why not a solid fuel fire extinguisher?'" he says. "Then, I looked at fire extinguishers you can find in your home, and began removing all materials that were expensive or had tight tolerances."
After eliminating everything unessential, Gaulthier designed FireStop so that the cardboard tube portion could be churned out anywhere.
This manufacturing aspect lends a boost to local economies that use this life saving device. With full belief in the importance of his project, Gaulthier is moving through the patenting process and hopes to put FireStop on the market in the next few years.
Gaulthier is not the only DAAP undergraduate student who pulled rank in last year's contest. Patrick Yovanov also won for a device he was inspired to create from a very personal experience.
After being diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008, Yovanov observed the issues that plagued him with his catheter.
"Between outpatient treatments, the lumens of my catheter would hang several inches from my chest," Yovanov says. "The pull of gravity would make the exit site very sore. I'd pin the lumens with hair clips to the underside of my shirt."
After the umpteenth hair clip, Yovanov began to design a new catheter altogether. Enter the new, improved central venous catheter, which he's now actively moving towards the market.
"I've received interest from some medical companies this winter," Yovanov says. "I've also met and talked with lawyers to understand the types of protection available. In a dream world, I will sell this idea. Bringing this project to fruition would mean a lot to me."
Ultimately, 23,000 new companies are created per year in the Cincinnati area. So these brilliant ideas are the tip of the iceberg. Bringing others exposure who may have otherwise not gotten it is exactly what Cincinnati Innovates will do.
"Our city is filled with people like this," Edwards says. "They're our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends. I was so impressed by the people who came forward last year and can't wait to see what we're going to find this year." To enter Cincinnati Innovates, submit your ideas May 1 through September 1, 2010 here. The contest is open to anyone who lives, works, or plays in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana). Want to learn more? There's a kick-off party on May 4th from 4:00pm-5:30pm at the Taft Center in the US Bank Building on Fountain Square.
Photography by Scott Beseler
Elizabeth Edwards and James Zimmerman