Innovation Competition Draws Inventors

Annual contest offers $25,000 in prizes and networking with entrepreneurs.

Tim McCaffrey won the GW Innovation Competition in life sciences for his RNA biomarkers that identify the presence of an infecti
Tim McCaffrey won the GW Innovation Competition in life sciences for his RNA biomarkers that identify the presence of an infection. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 09, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

Eco-friendly battery technology and biomarkers that identify the presence of infection topped the list of winners at the George Washington University’s fourth annual Technology Commercialization Office (TCO) Innovation Competition.

The contest, held last Wednesday in GW’s Science and Engineering Hall, is an opportunity for GW faculty and student researchers to compete for $25,000 in prize money for their commercially viable technology.

Of the 20 teams that participated this year, four finalists received prizes—one winner and a runner-up in each of two categories: physical science and life science.

Beyond the prize incentive, all participants in the competition have an opportunity to network with investors who may be able to continue funding them. Some former competitors, like Zhenyu Li, have received funding based on relationships they formed through the Innovation Competition.

“Getting university technologies to market is a contact sport,” said TCO Director Steven Kubisen. “So, a key value of the competition is [making] connections with outside businesspeople interested in innovative technologies.”

Leo Chalupa, GW’s vice president for research, which is one of the competition’s sponsors, said the university’s “profile in this very important arena of research is growing and growing.

“The quality of what we offer is always improving, and that’s validated by the increase in income and licensing opportunities that our researchers have received,” he said.

Timothy McCaffrey, director of the division of genomic medicine in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, won the top life sciences prize of $10,000 for developing biomarkers that will allow doctors to diagnose the presence of viral or bacterial infections. He said the prize will allow his team to make prototypes of their innovation.

Commercializing technology, he said, was in some ways analogous to teaching—though it offers its own challenges.

“If you can’t persuade students to be interested in something, you can’t persuade investors,” he said.

 Michael Wagner, whose team has developed a superior material for making lithium ion battery anodes—usually composed of graphite—carried the top prize in physical sciences. His hollow graphene nanoshells, which might be able to replace traditional graphite batteries in anything from smartphones to electric vehicles, are synthesized from carbon removed from the atmosphere.

“This is a technology that’s both eco-friendly and potentially profitable,” Dr. Wagner said. “Pulling carbon dioxide out of the air could actually make money. So that’s really exciting.”