Penn State’s top entrepreneurs compete in tech tournament for prizes

Phospholutions took the top prize of $75,000 with an environment-friendly, soil-amendment product

Phospholutions won $75,000 at the Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference Tech Tournament on April 20, 2018. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On April 20, at the Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference, Phospholutions captured first place in Penn State’s Tech Tournament. Licensing a technology created in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Phospholutions developed a soil-amendment product called Rhizosorb to reduce phosphorus runoff and enhance plant root depth.

Rhizosorb is currently being sold to golf courses to promote deeper roots for their turf grass, which consequently requires less watering and fewer applications of fertilizer. CEO Hunter Swisher and his COO and business partner, Benjamin Nason, claimed their $75,000 prize amidst raucous cheers from a packed room of more than 600 entrepreneurs and investors.

According to Swisher, an estimated 60 percent of the product applied in the $32 billion annual fertilizer market in the U.S. will wash away, and the country will spend an estimated additional $5 billion in 2018 to clean up phosphorous pollution because of runoff. He said he hopes to help solve that problem.

The opportunity to develop Rhizosorb emerged when Swisher was an undergraduate in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology. He learned about a patent developed by one of his professors that had not been commercialized yet. He saw market potential and set to work developing Rhizosorb and his company, Phospholutions.

At the Tech Tournament, Swisher was joined by 11 other entrepreneurs with startups at various stages of development, who made their cases to a panel of three judges — venture capitalists who peppered company founders with questions about product efficacy, market development, competitors, patent protection and growth projections.

In addition to Phospholutions, three other companies received prizes:

ThoraciCair received 2nd place ($50,000 prize) pitched by Dr. Charles Palmer, professor of pediatrics.

Every year over 260,000 newborn infants in the U.S. are treated for respiratory distress. Most of these infants are referred to neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) that can provide technology and expertise so they can be closely observed and given supplemental oxygen and positive distending pressure to assist breathing. The Thoracicair technology is being tested clinically to provide an effective device to enhance natural breathing without the need for an endotracheal tube and mechanical ventilation.

ThoraciCair is an elegant, stretchable, soft silicone set of tubes that encircle the ribcage and are pneumatically actuated. It has skin-friendly adhesive, approved for use on delicate neonatal skin. By varying the air pressure in the expander, the compliant chest wall is pulled outward to expand the lungs to assist breathing or compressed inward to assist in the clearance of secretions in the airways. 

—  Aleo BME, Inc. received 3rd place ($25,000 prize), pitched by Chao Liu.

In the more-than 300 million major surgeries performed worldwide, current practices use invasive techniques like sutures, staples, clips or mechanical devices, which often result in damage to surrounding healthy tissue, microbial infection, body fluid or air leakage, and poor cosmetic outcome. Additionally, the use of suture is not suitable on friable tissues such as those in the brain, spine, lung, liver, and kidney; and also often results in body fluid leakage and devastating complications. Postoperative leakages occur in 3 to 15 percent of cases and are considered as a serious complication leading to one-third of postoperative deaths and significant financial burden in patients.

With technology developed with Jian Yang, Department of Biomedical Engineering, biomaterials startup Aleo BME is developing a plant-inspired, fully synthetic, biocompatible, biodegradable, elastic, fast curing, and strong wet-issue adhesive based on proprietary biomaterial technologies. The product comes with an easy-to-use delivery tool and is designed as an off-the-shelf product without extra preparation requirements. The company’s Elaskin liquid bandage was cleared by the FDA in January 2019.

— ConidioTec, LLC. received the People’s Choice award ($10,000 prize), pitched by Nina Jenkins, Department of Entymology.

Bed bugs are a serious and growing problem in the U.S. and methods of bed bug control are often difficult. Currently there is no effective way for hotels or homeowners to prevent bed bug incursions. At best, hotels train staff in early detection and act rapidly in response to identified infestations. Bed bugs are incredibly difficult to eradicate with chemical sprays, requiring multiple applications over a period of three weeks.  Furthermore, bed bug resistance to the limited number of chemical pesticides permitted for in-home use is increasing with resulting reductions in efficacy. Hotels prefer to avoid chemical treatments, as these require rooms to be out of service during the extended, multiple-treatment period. Many opt for heat treatments, which are prohibitively expensive for most homeowners and frequently fail; furthermore, they offer no protection from re-infestation by visitors or from neighboring properties.

ConidioTec's product, Aprehend, is a non-toxic, effective fungal bio-pesticide, which will replace current chemical insecticide products used by pest exterminators. The product can be used for control and prevention of bed bug infestations. ConidioTec won the hearts, minds and text-in vote of the audience for the People's Choice award.

Other startups competing in the 2018 Tech Tournament included:

  • Lyralux, an early-stage company formed to commercialize Dim to Vivid, a light source technology that enhances colors at low light levels
  • Naltrexone, a treatment method to accelerate the rate of wound healing for diabetic foot ulcers
  • Million Concepts, a high-quality microscopy solution for online educational applications
  • Wear-IT, a wearable/mobile platform that detects cravings in people recovering from addiction disorder by monitoring indicators of stress and anxiety
  • Helios Biotechnology & Pharmaceuticals, LLC, a novel treatment for metastatic cancers and autoimmune disorders
  • Simplr Technologies LLC, a fully automatic image analysis software to help people create beautiful and impressive photos, and to better manage photo collections
  • OsteoSynth, a synthetic bone grafting material called Bone Foam, which provides dentists a more effective and easier to use alternative to current biologic and synthetic graft materials
  • Captis Diagnostics, a molecular diagnostics company focused on early detection of cancers and personalized cancer medicine through a simple blood draw

Find additional Penn State-affiliated startups and intellectual property available for licensing online at and


Last Updated April 25, 2018