The annual Aram Kalenian Awards, given in honor of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of students, faculty, and alumni, were announced last week, and four winners (three groups and one individual) were chosen from a field of 26 applicants. The award includes a prize of $5,000 that helps winners continue to the next step in their business plans.
“Awards like this keep the entrepreneurship and innovation community more vibrant,” says Gina Betti, associate director of the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at WPI. The prize is always a special source of pride for the WPI community because of the spirit it is given in and the memory of the person it is named for, she says.
The Kalenian Award began in 2006 in memory of inventor Aram Kalenian ’33 by his wife, Alba; it offers funds that will help WPI community members launch their innovative ideas and projects to the next development, research, or planning level.
Paul Kalenian, son of Aram and Alba, has the challenging and exhilarating task of selecting the winners each year. “It’s a very difficult choice for him,” says Betti. “Everyone who applies is a winner in his mind.”
Biology and biotechnology professor Pamela Weathers says the award is an honor and allows her to take the next step in her research on powerful herbal treatments for cancer that would produce fewer side effects. “This award keeps the project alive,” says Weathers. She and a PhD student have been researching the effects of specific herbs in cell experiments to see if they can halt or even prevent the development of cancer cells. “Now we can try it on animals to see if it works as well as the cell culture material suggests,” she says.
Fellow winners Nick Crider ’10, and Tom Villani ’10, of Phytosys LLC, say they can move forward in their development and marketing of Visikol, a chemical agent that makes both plant and animal tissues transparent without having to slice or destroy the actual specimens. Villani invented Visikol as a way to replace the narcotic chloral hydrate currently used to give specimens transparency. “I thought, ‘Why would you use narcotics for this? There must be another chemical to do the same thing,’” says Villani. The duo hope future medicinal and animal biology projects will benefit from the technology.
Also receiving the award is a three-person team from the Foisie School of Business that includes Kevin Sweeney, professor of practice; Huong Higgins, professor; and Fabienne Miller, associate professor. The team is using the award to continue its research into the feasibility of starting a mergers and acquisitions center at WPI.
Sweeney says the center would impact both the immediate WPI community as well as the wider community, as it will focus on helping small- and medium-sized businesses make transitions to help their businesses grow and prosper. “Many small- and medium-sized firms have challenges in terms of transitions,” she says. If a product achieves marketable success, but the inventor isn’t interested in running a company, they need the knowledge to help that business continue to succeed, whether it’s through acquiring other companies or merging with another to sell the idea and monetize it. “We aren’t structuring the deals, but enhancing the outcomes,” says Sweeney.
The center, if opened, could help WPI students land IQPs and MQPs, work at internships, participate on project-based work, and work closely with alumni. On a larger scale, Sweeney says the Central Massachusetts region has many smaller businesses that would benefit from the interdisciplinary financial and technical expertise WPI has to offer. “This is grounded in supporting the WPI community and the community in a broader sense,” he says. “There are so many opportunities for connections here.”
A team of students earned a Kalenian Award for their efforts at developing technology for malaria detection using tools on a cell phone. Elizabeth van Zyl ’17, Ben Pulver ’17, and Taylor Flaxington ’17, see the award as an opportunity to move to the next phase of their cell phone–based microscope and microfluidic cartridge diagnostic tool.
“This award is going to be huge in helping us move the project forward, primarily in funding the provisional patent and purchasing materials to make the next iteration of the prototype,” says Pulver. “The next step for us is to start the patent process to protect our IP. The Kalenian Award is going to cover the provisional patent costs as well as potentially some other costs.”
Pulver says the award is also a morale booster for each of the students involved. “Receiving the award has given me a lot more confidence in approaching employers about job prospects,” says Pulver. “I really feel that this validates all of the hard work I’ve done and continue to do at WPI and does so in a concrete way that companies can understand.”
– BY JULIA QUINN-SZCESUIL