Helping student inventors turn big ideas into the next big thing

It’s back-to-school season, but these students have taken their brainstorming outside the classroom to solve pressing, real-life problems. Visit a competition where teams of student inventors pitch their entrepreneurial ideas to guests posing as investors, who vote on the best startup ideas. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from Portland, Oregon.

Read the Full Transcript


    As students head back to college this year, some will be doing more than just the usual course work.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise has a story about a group of student inventors trying to make their mark, part of our weekly series covering the Leading Edge of science and technology.


    Music, wine, and ideas were flowing at an event in Portland, Oregon, that brought together college students from around the country who have all been hard at work, between classes and tests, inventing the next big thing.

    While the atmosphere was festive, there was some serious business going on. Fourteen teams pitched their inventions to invited guests, who were playing the role of venture investors for the evening, with venture bucks to invest in the ballot boxes of their favorite start-ups.

  • MAN:

    Back the team that you think is going to change the world.


    There were plenty of cool ideas to choose from, like a low-cost water contamination detection system from an all-women team of engineers at Santa Clara University, and a device to help babies with respiratory distress syndrome in low-resource hospitals developed by students at Western Michigan University.

    And there was even a group from a local high school trying to tackle another common problem in many parts of the world, lack of electricity to charge cell phones.

  • WILLIAM WU, West Salem High School:

    We made a thermoelectric generator that can be used in open fire to generate electricity while cooking. The metal rod right here will go directly into the pot they're using for cooking, and the heat will go from the rod into the thermal electric generators that will generate electricity from the heat.


    Many of the products on display are still in the early stages of development, and some build on ideas that are already out in the marketplace.

    But a few of the teams have created things never invented before. Katherine Jin is part of the Kinnos team from Columbia University. She and her two co-founders, who are also her classmates, were inspired when they saw a need for better disinfection methods during the Ebola crisis in Africa.

  • KEVIN TYAN, Co-founder, Kinnos:

    One of the current problems with the way people decontaminate today is that the disinfectants are clear and transparent, so you can't see where you're spraying. They bounce off waterproof surfaces, just like rain off an umbrella.


    After some late nights and a lot of trial and error, they developed Highlight, a powder that adds temporary color to bleach and enhances adhesion to surfaces.

    Jason Kang, a biomedical engineering major, gave me a demo.


    What we're going to do is, we're going to add highlight directly to the bleach. So, I have poured it in here. So, once you add the powder, it's really simple. You just mix it, and it just dissolves instantly.


    OK, so what's this surface here that you are going to spray?


    Yes, so this is actually a square cut from one of the suits that doctors will wear when they are treating patients in the field.

    So, I'm going to spray it on here. So, you can see that it fully covers the surface. It's really easy to see where you sprayed. It has a nice sticky coverage. It will trap the viruses and bacteria and kill them.


    The event was sponsored by a nonprofit called VentureWell that provides financial backing and training for student-run start-ups.

    The organization is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which also helps fund the "NewsHour."

    Over the course of two days leading up to the competition, students and supportive faculty attended a variety of skill-building workshops.

  • WOMAN:

    The theme of today is really around communication and managing how you are perceived. So, our theme here is how to help your ideas shine. Every single person is going to have a one-minute pitch and a five-word pitch.


    Teams mixed up and shared their ideas with their peers.

    Luke Neese is a former police officer, and a recent Texas A&M grad, who has developed a system to detect gunshots using sound waves.


    I started off looking at what was available in the gunshot detection market, and everything was ridiculously expensive.

  • KEETH SMART, Physiclo:

    What PHYSICLO does is, we integrate resistance bands and panels into compression tights.


    Keeth Smart developed his sportswear product while at Columbia Business School. He also happens to be a former professional fencer who won silver at the Beijing Olympics. Smart launched his company last year with the help of $150,000 in crowd-funding. But, he says, it's still hard to get the word out.


    We know that, like, once we show this product to people, they will love it, but getting it out there is a big challenge for most entrepreneurs.


    Christina Tamer knows well the challenges that student entrepreneurs face. She's a program officer with VentureWell.

  • CHRISTINA TAMER, VentureWell:

    First of all, they're young, so they have a tougher time being taken seriously. So, having our support in terms of, you know, having someone to bounce ideas off of, to check their assumptions, look through their materials, and be a coach and a mentor.


    For their part, the Kinnos team is moving full steam ahead with Highlight, which they have been field-testing in West Africa.

    We caught up with them in New York as they were making a new batch in a Columbia University engineering lab. They also had upcoming exams to think about.

  • KATHERINE JIN, Kinnos:

    I think all of us have, at this point, sacrificed a test grade or even a class at the end of the day to complete something we need to get done for the company.


    All of their hard work is starting to pay off. They have got their first customer, not overseas, as you might expect, but here in the U.S., the New York City Fire Department, which had its own Ebola scare.

  • DR. DAVID PREZANT, Chief Medical Officer, FDNY:

    As New York City, we are one of the entry points for world travelers, especially world travelers from West Africa. So, clearly, this was on our agenda to prepare, to be able to respond effectively and safely.


    Doctor David Prezant is the chief medical officer for the FDNY. He says Highlight has filled a big need for the department.


    Now you have an EMS worker in full protective equipment, knowing that protective equipment is really good, but now, when he is sprayed or she is sprayed with the bleach, they're able to look at their equipment, their hand, their glove, and they see it's blue.


    Back in Portland, as the evening competition wrapped up, the teams who received the most venture bucks were announced.

  • MAN:

    OK, this is what we have been waiting for. The first prize, with $96 million venture bucks, they will be getting $1,000, and it goes to — it goes to Kinnos.



    The team enjoyed their win and then quickly got back to work. A few days later, they were headed to Europe to meet with the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Portland Oregon.


    The Kinnos team recently graduated from Columbia University, and the three are now working full-time on their product.

    The story is part of our regular Breakthrough coverage of invention and innovation.

Listen to this Segment