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Iowa Innovation Challenge announces phase II winners, awards $167,000 in prizes

On April 13 and 14 the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) held the second phase of the Iowa Innovation Challenge and awarded $167,000 in prize money.

A total of 52 UI businesses applied to compete in the business model competition. Thirty-six were selected as finalists to compete virtually due to COVID-19.

In total, the Iowa Innovation Challenge awarded $276,500 during the 2019-2020 academic year to University of Iowa faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate students, and incubator startups.

The is the first year the University of Iowa has hosted the Iowa Innovation Challenge. The contest is designed to provide support and funding to different startups, ideas and entrepreneurial projects on campus — no matter where an applicant is in their degree or professional career.

Four UI organizations partnered in the project to fund the contes — John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, UI Ventures, the UI Research Foundation and the Office of the Vice President for Research. 

Here are the startups that received awards:

Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Incubator Startup Awards

  • 1st Place, $25,000 | CartilaGen – Jaison Marks
    Medical technology that is capable of preventing posttraumatic osteoarthritis.
  • 2nd Place, $15,000 | VerdiLife – Mahdi Eghbali
    Strives to make the Earth a healthier place by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and replacing harmful chemicals used in agriculture with all-natural solutions.
  • 3rd Place, $10,000 | Apollo – Jon Lensing
    A web-based platform that seeks to match physicians and other healthcare providers with hiring hospitals seeking shift coverage.
  • 4th Place, $5,000 | Firefly Photonics – Michael Jones, Fatima Toor, and John Prineas
    A leader in the research and development of high performance mid- to long-wave infrared LED and laser technology.

Honorable Mention ($2,500 each)

  • Cardio Diagnostics – Meesha Dogan
    A precision Medtech company that is developing the first at-home clinical, artificial intelligence-driven DNA test to help prevent cardiovascular disease.
  • PaniClean – Joun Lee
    Develops key technological innovations to improve the energy efficiency of the water treatment process and lower freshwater cost.
  • Graze Analytics – Daniel Machlab
    Helps restaurants improve their profitability by providing them with data analytics on customer feedback.

Undergraduate Student Awards

Best Technology/High Growth

  • 1st Place, $10,000 | Track My Tummy – Farhanudin Syed
    A photo-based smartphone application to help patients identify foods triggering their chronic symptoms.
  • 2nd Place, $4,000 (tied) | Avarupt – Caleb Marting
    Custom LED lighting solutions for businesses.
  • 2nd Place, $4,000 (tied) | Palate Pal – Ally Carey, Jennifer Mount, Hannah Drkulec, and Taylor Deutsch
    A device that assists patients with limited upper extremity mobility to improve eating dependence.

Best Non-Technology

  • 1st Place, $3,500 | CapturePro – Patrick Prosser, Lane Dethrow, Brittany Caskey
    A rental company that provides customers with a GoPro and other accessories needed to record an adventure, shipped directly to your destination.
  • 2nd Place, $2,500 | Funny Nuggets – Jade Peterson
    Comedy clubhouse for kids.
  • 3rd Place, $1,000 | Kimik Sustainable Solutions – Trent Katz
    A recycling bin that tracks how many bottles and cans are being placed in the bin.

Best Retail Business

  • 1st Place, $3,500 | Schneider Custom Designs – Blane Schneider
    A woodworking company specializing in unique coffee tables, side tables, cutting boards, and other furniture using a mix of wood and beautifully colored epoxy resin.
  • 2nd Place, $2,500 | Fruit for the Earth – Blake Quarrie
    A service company offering white label fertilizer to retailers produced from organic waste.
  • 3rd Place, $1,000 | FoodCents – Erika Law
    A hands-on educational game about nutrition for elementary school students.

Best Social Impact

  • 1st Place, $3,500 | HeadsIn – Matt Lewis
    Intelligent, communication application that monitors and tracks the mental health of student-athletes.
  • 2nd Place, $2,500 | Assistance Technologies – Michael Westphal, John Tian, and Zach Combs
    RFID bracelet key for use within assisted living centers.
  • 3rd Place, $1,000 | Socialite – Ethan Bennett
    A social media platform for making friends.

Best Lifestyle Business

  • 1st Place, $3,500 | FestPlug – Michael Dankanich (Open Major) A digital platform that facilitates easy hiring at music festivals.
  • 2nd Place, $2,500 | Eagers – Katy Misel (Entrepreneurial Management) An after school entrepreneurship program for upper elementary and middle school students.
  • 3rd Place, $1,000 | Sunflower Mobile Dentist – Anna Fox (Health Science-Multidisciplinary Science) A nonprofit, faith-based dental clinic that offers free care to the homeless living in high need areas in Iowa.

Best Overall Pitch

  • Context – Stewart Knights
    An interactive mobile application that provides a story-based way to learn about cultures across the globe.

Honorable Mention ($2,000 each)

  • Golden Gloss Auto Detailing – Matthew Nicholson
    Luxury automotive detailing.
  • Ergo Tech – Zoey Sletterhaugh
    A wearable motion capture device that aims to reduce musculoskeletal workplace injuries.
  • PTXtension – Ryan Gudenkauf
    A mobile app aimed at improving patient accountability and boosting the success and cost-effectiveness of physical therapy.

Alumni Awards

Top Finalists ($10,000 each)

  • Apollo Technologies – Jon Lensing
  • Skilled Day – Megan Zalzala
    Scheduling solution allows providers and patients in skilled nursing facilities to access their schedules.
  • Trigger Interactive – Tyler Brockel
    Manufactures, sells, advanced small arms, live-fire target systems that deliver dynamic firearms training solution at a fraction of cost.

Runner Ups ($5,000 each)

  • Dhakai – Russel Karim
    B2B apparel sourcing marketplace connects US private labels and retailers to SE Asian apparel manufacturers.
  • Goldfinch Health – Brand Newland
    Helps companies save money by empowering employees to better navigate surgery and recovery.
  • Theion Agriculture – Justin Carter
    Developing growth promoter that improves crop yields for indoor agriculture, greenhouse ag and traditional row crop farming.
  • Speeko – Nico Aguilar
    Tech startup dedicated to helping people become confident public speakers.

Best Overall Pitch ($2,500)

  • Vertical Golfing – Brady Trent
    eCommerce business in niche of keeping golfers on course for as many years as possible using playing aids.

Previous coverage

Iowa Innovation Challenge awards $81,000 to UI startups -Nov. 21, 2019

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Iowa Innovation Challenge announces phase II winners, awards $167,000 in prizes | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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