GW Entrepreneurs Win Recognition in International Investment Competition

Nanochon and Early Innovation Systems, health innovation companies founded at GW, were two of five finalists at the World Business Angel Investment Forum on the Global Fundraising Stage in South Africa.

December 15, 2023

Nathalya Ramirez presents on the WBAF Global Fundraising Stage in Durban, South Africa. (WBAF)

Nathalya Ramirez presents on the WBAF Global Fundraising Stage in Durban, South Africa. (WBAF)

Nathalya Ramirez doesn’t like to sit still. “I actually get very bored with comfort,” said Ramirez, who as a student at the George Washington University loaded up on clubs, sports, volunteer opportunities, scholarships and side jobs. She’s also not afraid to make big leaps: a native of Bogotá, Colombia, Ramirez has spent half her life in the United States and was in the first generation of her family to attend college.

So Ramirez, co-founder and CEO of Early Intervention Systems (EIS), wasn’t fazed when she heard from GW’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE) about an opportunity to pitch her company to potential angel investors on the World Business Angel Investment Forum  (WBAF) Global Fundraising Stage  in Durban, South Africa—even though the event was just two weeks away.

“I just thought, ‘Why would this be happening right now if I wasn't meant to go there?’” Ramirez said. She and her cofounders, current GW medical student Rohan Patil, B.S. ’19, and Krishan Shah, B.A. ’20, swiftly pulled together their pitch. Ramirez bought plane tickets, and two weeks later she was embarking on the 36-hour journey to Durban. (She wrote about the experience on her personal blog.)

Her initiative paid off. EIS and Nanochon, another company founded at GW, were among just five finalists at the World Business Angel Investment Forum 2023 (WBAF) international venture pitch competition. Nanochon is developing a 3D-printed implant to address joint cartilage loss in younger patients, potentially preventing the need for full knee replacement later, while EIS is developing tools to streamline patient care professionals’ documentation of their clients’ well-being.

Nanochon CEO Ben Holmes developed the seeds of the company with Nathan Castro, both Ph.D. ’16, while they were doctoral students in the laboratory of GW Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean for Research Lijie Grace Zhang. While he wasn’t able to attend the event—Nanochon representative Rachel Offenburg was there to accept the win—Holmes said it’s opened the company to international visibility as they move from testing their implant in horses toward human trials next year.

“This was really an opportunity for us to introduce our product to the global community for the first time,” Holmes said. “We’ve had a lot of interest from potential funding partners: a lot of sovereign wealth funds and international angel groups are present at this event, as well as the WBAF itself.”

Both Holmes and Ramirez said their companies have benefited enormously from their ongoing relationship with GW. Holmes particularly emphasized the support of Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Jim Chung, who helped steward Nanochon through the National Science Foundation I-Corps tech commercialization program in 2016.

“George Washington has done such a good job with supporting entrepreneurship and having a lot of resources and programs as well as continuing mentorship,” Holmes said. “That coaching and programming encouraged us to take that path seriously.”

The wins at WBAF don’t guarantee investment, but rather place finalists in a due-diligence process with potential investors. Ramirez, however, said the event’s value went beyond any potential monetary gain. It’s introduced her to an international network of potential partners, experts and fellow entrepreneurs who she hopes will help take EIS into its next phase.

At a networking event the first day of the conference, Ramirez found herself seated with two tough, knowledgeable businesspeople who prodded at the rough spots of her pitch—a conversation she laughingly compared to being told “Your baby’s ugly.” It was tough not to get defensive, but Ramirez stifled her objections and accepted the criticism as gracefully as she could.

The next day, as judges took their seats on stage before the competition, she saw two familiar faces. Without realizing it, she’d had a practice run with two of them.

“It actually helped me during the pitch,” Ramirez said. “I am not shy—I was a high school teacher—but there's so many factors and you have to say so much in a short amount of time. But whenever I kind of felt that pressure, I thought, ‘Well, I know them.’ Just keep on going, deliver the message and take it home, which is what they wanted to help me with in the first place. So it took the pressure off.”

On the long flight home, Ramirez said she was already thinking about how to apply what she’d learned—how her new skills and new network might help her take EIS to the next level, how to address the weaknesses in her pitch and what steps to take next.

“When I’m in a place where I’m thinking ‘Hmm, things are going well,’ for me that’s like there's something wrong,” she said. Ramirez’ next big challenge, in fact, might be learning to relax and enjoy what she’s already achieved. “I’m so passionate about everything that I want to do my best.”

GW’s Vice Provost for Research Pamela Norris serves as a senator in the World Business Angels Investment Forum representing the United States of America. OIE signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Business Investment Forum’s Finanical Inclusion Center, an Affiliated Partner of the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI), in November.  The agreement reflects a mutual commitment to job creation and increased prosperity worldwide by transforming visionary ideas into thriving businesses.

The signing of the partnership agreement paves the way for programming, student and faculty engagement and knowledge sharing between the two organizations. It is emblematic of OIE’s continuing commitment to international partnerships and enriching the global startup ecosystem. Other OIE initiatives include an annual pitch competition in partnership with the World Bank Youth Summit; competitions, fellowships, and networking events with entrepreneurs from around the world through several State Department regional youth leadership initiatives; and programs focused on customer discovery for researchers in nineteen countries, including Korea, Japan and Georgia this year.