Company’s founders draw lessons from predecessors in pursuit of a trophy for fourth consecutive year

Alexander Singh and Rohit Rustagi know they have big shoes to fill at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s InVenture Prize innovation competition. Past University of Virginia teams have collected trophies in each of the event’s first three years. Now, it’s their turn to represent UVA at the fourth annual ACC InVenture Prize at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh on April 16 and 17.

Singh and Rustagi are founders of Minimally Invasive Spinal Technology LLC and inventors of the Thoracolumbar Interbody ReAlignment system. Called ThIRA, the system is a novel spinal stabilization technique for treating childhood scoliosis. The company also goes by its initials, MIST.

The two fourth-year biomedical engineering majors and 2018-2019 Pike Fellows in the School of Engineering will pitch their company and invention to a panel of judges along with 13 other teams of undergraduate tech entrepreneurs from ACC schools. Prizes for first, second and people’s choice add up to $30,000.

If the past is a guide, MIST goes into the fray as the favorite. Beginning in 2016, the UVA team placed second overall for Contraline, a company and team led by Kevin Eisenfrats (nanomedicine 2015) and first place in 2017 for AgroSpheres, led by Payam Pourtaheri (nanomedicine 2016) and Ameer Shakeel (biomedical 2017). Both of those companies are thriving today and based locally in Charlottesville.

Last year, UVA’s Ashwinraj Karthikeyan, a 2018 aerospace engineering graduate and founder of InMEDbio, won both first prize and the people’s choice award in the competition.

Photo of Alexander Singh and Rohit Rustagi

Alexander Singh (left) and Rohit Rustagi, fourth-year biomedical engineering students, are co-founders of Minimally Invasive Spinal Technology LLC. They have been selected to represent UVA in the 2019 ACC InVenture Prize competition.

So, is there pressure to win? Singh and Rustagi say they are more invigorated than daunted by their predecessors’ track record.

“I’d argue we’ve been deeply inspired by their individual successes,” Singh said, noting that Eisenfrats, Pourtaheri and Karthikeyan actively mentor him and Rustagi. “I think this speaks to the community of entrepreneurs at UVA, as we’re constantly motivated by the successes of others, as well as eager to learn from each other’s failures.”

Rustagi added that watching Karthikeyan last year hammered home the importance of customer discovery.

“Ashwin calmly answered all of the judges’ questions and knew everything from his extensive interviews,” Rustagi said. “Customer discovery is one of the most important pillars of creating a successful venture, and we hope that through our 150-plus interviews, we will be prepared for any question.”

In the preliminary round on April 16, a panel composed of judges selected by the participating ACC schools will whittle the field down to five teams. Heidi Lanford, vice president for enterprise data and analytics at Red Hat, will represent UVA on the panel. She holds a bachelor’s in math and statistics from the University and serves on the board of the Data Science Institute.

The final round to determine winners on April 17 will air live on the Public Broadcasting System. Judges evaluate each team’s quality of idea, business model, entrepreneurship and probability of success. The students also participate in a variety of innovation and startup activities and present their work following the final competition to audience members, the public and potential investors.

If readers are wondering about UVA’s secret to success, it might lie in how Liz Pyle and Alex Zorychta of the Engineering and Society Department decide who should compete for the University. Rather than run a competition to pick a team, UVA lets students make the choice.

“We have a pretty vibrant community of entrepreneurs,” said Pyle, the associate director for technology entrepreneurship and director of UVA’s NSF I-Corps Program. “Alex and I go around and have conversations with students asking who they feel would best represent UVA at the competition. They want the best team, not only in terms of their technology or business, but that they present well, too. They want a team that represents the best of UVA in terms of entrepreneurship.”

Pyle also consults with several of her fellow members on the UVA Entrepreneurship Advisory Council to make sure there aren’t any students or teams across the University’s entrepreneurship ecosystem that she and Zorychta might have missed. The top team has been a unanimous choice every year so far, Pyle said, including this one.

The Department of Engineering and Society helps students like Singh and Rustagi to pursue projects or ventures outside their academic coursework in a variety of ways, including providing instruction, mentoring and networking opportunities, and coaching for competitions. The programs, such as the Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows Program that Singh and Rustagi are involved in, are designed to enable students to take their ideas from lab to market.

A building block of the entrepreneurship program is having an established “culture of founders,” says Zorychta, who, as assistant director of technology entrepreneurship, spends a lot of time coaching students.

“It means carefully cultivating programs to include participants who are at a similar level of engagement on their own project so that they constantly motivate and learn from one another,” Zorychta said. He calls the approach “intentional design of peer influences.”

At UVA Engineering, this founders’ community comes together in Works in Progress, a program Zorychta created and directs. It has helped produce a string of successful tech startups headed by recent graduates of the School, including Eisenfrats, Pourtaheri and Karthikeyan. Being rooted in this culture, Singh and Rustagi recognize the legacy they are part of at the ACC competition. But their training also tells them to focus on what is most important.

“Damon DeVito, who teaches our Pike Fellows course, always stresses to us that winning or losing is not a validation of our venture,” Singh said. “We know from our work that we have a product and system that could revolutionize the way treatment for children with scoliosis is managed and we constantly make ourselves aware that no matter our success at any pitch, as long as we meet our company’s milestones, we’ll be successful in the long run."