Associate Professor Susan Coombes, Justin Liberatore, Noah Jones and Senior Associate Dean Ken Kahn

The birth of product innovation

May 25, 2018 - Susan T. Burtch

This year, the concept of light-changing incubators beat out nine other entries in the ACG Business Plan Competition. In fact, the big win by Team Brise-Solette is yet another example of Virginia Commonwealth University’s increasing focus on collaboration in entrepreneurial thought. 

First-place winners Justin Liberatore and Noah Jones worked closely with College of Engineering students Aniket Kulkarni, Chandana Muktipaty, Joshna Seelam and Kashyap Venuthurupalli to develop and promote their idea. Essentially, the engineering students generated the idea and designed the product. The business entrepreneurship students researched its feasibility and differentiation, then positioned the product for presentation to industry experts.

Two disciplines at work

“It’s a real learning experience when two different alpha minds go head-to-head,” laughs Liberatore. “It was almost like a cultural barrier,” adds Jones, recounting the experience. “We had to learn how to explain things and receive information from each other.”

The prize-winning result of this collaboration was a smart-film cover used to block out light from a NICU incubator known as an isolette. Premature babies live in this womb-like environment until their slow-to-develop retinas are able to tolerate the light. Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, which initiated the request, had been using blankets. However, as Liberatore and Jones were quick to point out, blankets pose an infection hazard and have to be removed regularly to inspect the infants. Not only is the Brise-Solette film more hygienic, but it automatically turns from opaque to transparent when a baby’s vital signs spike. The film also provides cyclic lighting, which helps to speed a premature baby’s development – thus saving time and money in the NICU.

Sponsor support

The Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Richmond has been a sponsor of the Entrepreneurship Capstone course in the School of Business since 2007. But it’s only been since 2016 that business and engineering students have worked in tandem on the ACG year-end competition.

“For that collaboration, we need to give a big shout-out to Ben for helping to identify and vet projects that are likely to be the best fit,” says Susan Coombes, an associate professor with the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship and instructor of the capstone course. Together with Bennett (Ben) Ward, Ph.D., associate professor and director of project outreach for the College of Engineering, she has given students “not just theory,” but also real-world practice. 

“We help them understand what it takes to launch a venture and develop a differentiated product,” she explains. “We also give them valuable experience in communicating and working across disciplines.” And this year, that valuable learning experience came with a cash prize.

“Our ACG volunteers are incredibly generous with their time,” says Coombes. In addition to judging the actual competition, they met with students at a “bullpen luncheon” for coaching and mentoring. Many of them also judged the posters presented earlier in the month at the College of Engineering’s annual Senior Capstone Design Expo – in which the Brise-Solette team of business and engineering students won prizes for both entrepreneurship and engineering.

ACG Competition Winners

1st place: Brise-Solette
Light-changing incubators
Justin Liberatore and Noah Jones

2nd place: EpiCure
Pressure-sensing epidural
Saad Guliwala and Megan Murphy

3rd place: Code Makers
In-school coding instruction, brought by bus
Leandra Bessell, Nicole Hahne and Haneen Sabbagh