At the competition kick-off in September, Penn researchers and last year’s Y-Prize runner-up spoke on new inventions, taking the innovative approach, and why participation matters.

For six years, the Y-Prize Competition, co-hosted by Wharton’s Mack Institute, Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, Penn Engineering, and Penn Center for Innovation, has awarded the best commercial applications of emerging Penn technologies. The annual winning pitch receives $10,000 and a nonexclusive license to use the tech to solve real-world problems, but Prof. Kathleen Stebe — Richer & Elizabeth Goodwin Professor, Deputy Dean for Research in Engineering, and a researcher behind one of this year’s two featured inventions — believes that participation itself is the best reward.

“Think of this as the Shark Tank course that we don’t offer, that you can’t pay for. We get these experts lined up here to give you their very direct and demanding guidance,” said Stebe, opening the 2019 Y-Prize kick-off on September 26. “The knowledge is priceless, the experience is priceless, pitting yourselves against each other is priceless. In fact, it’s better than Shark Tank. They don’t get to all be in the room at the same time.”

This year, the technologies are inspired by natural phenomena.

Like the Venus flytrap, Embodied Logic structures can respond to specific stimuli, like water, without using any electronics. Jordan Raney, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, said the structures can be implemented in “rudimentary” robotics, for example, to open a capsule to gather environmental samples when the right conditions are met.

Roll-to-Roll Surface Wrinkle Printing allows for mass-production of micro- and nano-scale wrinkles, the same wrinkles that help geckos climb walls and give butterfly wings their never-fading color. According to Dr. Xu Zhang, who does research alongside Stebe, the tech could prove useful in biomedicine, optics, stretchable electronics, or even as a dry adhesive.

Novel Approach

Past Y-Prize participants have applied featured tech to unmet needs in a range of fields, spanning medicine, food production, mineral extraction, electronics, education, and more. VisiPlate, winner of the 2017 Y-Prize and the 2018 Penn President’s Innovation Prize, was just one example of a team who looked outside of the box.

“They started with a super thin, two-dimensional material that was made for aerospace, and turned it into a technology to address glaucoma,” Stebe said. “So don’t be confined in your thinking. The less confined you are, the more fun you’ll have.”

Vikram Krishnamoorthy, C’20, W’20, and George Pandya, E’20, W’20, of last year’s runner-up team Carbolytics, recalled their Y-Prize experience and how it led to CytoFoundry, their manufacturing platform for faster, more affordable cell therapies.

“I remember walking outside of the first info session. Everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, so it’s going to be a biosensor probably,’” Vikram said. The 2018 winner, however, was Cellview Sciences, who proposed using carbon nanopipettes to screen in vitro fertilized human embryos for genetic abnormalities. Fellow finalists presented plans to deliver gene therapy to patients with life-threatening skin diseases, as well as make airplane exteriors more aerodynamic.

Instead of limiting the possibilities, Vikram suggested first asking questions close to home. “What is the problem that you want to solve? How can this technology that you see act as your secret weapon?”

Carbolytics' Vikram Krishnamoorthy, C’20, W’20, and George Pandya, E’20, W’20
Carbolytics’ Vikram Krishnamoorthy, C’20, W’20, and George Pandya, E’20, W’20


“When you are looking at some of the most complex problems that we are facing as a society, those are, first of all, the problems where the most money is,” Vikram said. “But those are also the most convoluted problems to solve because they involve so many issues across so many different fields.”

“Cross-pollinate,” was Stebe’s advice. “Really good ideas with sound technical grounding come from speaking to people from different backgrounds.”

The Y-Prize was what brought Vikram, who’s studying biology and health care management in the LSM Program, and George, currently studying mechanical engineering and operations in the M&T Program, together. “It got us the type of talent, the type of skills we needed, in the same room,” said Vikram. It also pushed them out of their comfort zones and gave them valuable pitching experience.

For Carbolytics, losing the Y-Prize wasn’t endgame — it was the beginning. A few months later, the team went on to take second place at Pennvention 2018. “Now, we’ve got about $20K in funding. We’re building out a prototype. We’re filing patents. You’ll get surprisingly far.”

The next Y-Prize event, “Creating Your Proposal,” will be taking place the week of October 22. Subscribe here to follow competition updates.

— Gloria Yuen

Posted: October 26, 2018

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