By Steve Frandzel, Chris Palmer, Rachel Robertson, and Gale Sumida. Photos by Karl Maasdam, Lucas Radostitz, Gale Sumida.
Every engineer spends countless hours learning their field inside and out, but only a relative few ever launch a company to bring their inventions to the world. Luckily, the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator helps faculty, staff, students, and alumni take that critical step by shepherding new companies through all phases of the startup process.
“Part of Oregon State’s mission as a land-grant university is boosting the local as well as the global economy,” said Karl Mundorff, executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Oregon State and the Accelerator’s director. “You can do that by supporting existing businesses, but to really be competitive and grow stronger and more diverse living-wage jobs in Oregon, we need to layer entrepreneurship on top of that.”
The Accelerator offers a trio of programs to help would-be entrepreneurs take their idea from sketch pad to launch pad.
ITERATE consists of four workshops that help clients evaluate ideas from an entrepreneurial mindset. Clients in this stage work to identify a potential product, market, and industry for their idea.
The 10-week ACCELERATE program focuses on product-market fit. Clients develop a viable product, test their startup’s feasibility, and validate their business models. Faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the broader Oregon State community all participate in Iterate and Accelerate together.
LAUNCH is a five-month, immersive program designed to make each startup fully operational — from completing the team to developing a repeatable sales model. At this stage, clients seek to ramp up from an R&D company to a product manufacturing and marketing company.
The Accelerator also offers funding support, including access to the University Innovation Research Fund, the University Venture Development Fund, and small business development grants. When clients are ready, Accelerator staff make introductions to angel and venture capital investors.
Since its creation in 2013, the Accelerator has helped companies created by College of Engineering faculty, staff, students, and alumni — including inaugural Accelerate program member Onboard Dynamics, which received a $30 million investment from BP Energy in 2021. The stories that follow highlight three companies launched, both with and without Accelerator support, by College of Engineering students and alumni.
Josh Bamberger knew for certain that his invention would work after he used a single finger to effortlessly lift a duffel bag holding a 50-pound sack of concrete. He followed that with a one-finger pull-up.
“He’s pretty strong, but not strong enough to do one-arm pinkie pull-ups on his own,” said Nathan Jewell, Bamberger’s business partner and co-inventor of the MoonClimb adaptive climbing device, designed to help rock climbers ascend using less force, making the sport more accessible to climbers of varying ability and strength.
Nathan Jewell (left) and Josh Bamberger get ready to test the lifting capabilities of MoonClimb, a product they invented to provide assistance for rock climbers. With the help of the device, Bamberger easily hoisted a duffel bag containing 50 pounds of cement with his little finger.
Bamberger, B.S. mechanical engineering ’21, and Jewell, B.S. computer science ’21, were friends in preschool, but they didn’t cross paths again until Oregon State. By pure chance, they became dorm neighbors in West Hall and reestablished their friendship around backpacking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and mountaineering. Their adventures included summiting some of the Pacific Northwest’s foremost glaciated peaks, like Rainier, Hood, and Baker.
The idea for MoonClimb emerged in the winter of 2020, when Bamberger was talking with some other members of the Adaptive Technology Engineering Network, or ATEN, a student group that aspires to provide solutions to problems encountered by people with disabilities. Its membership includes individuals with and without disabilities.
“We were thinking up ways to make rock climbing more accessible, and my friend at ATEN said he could probably make it to the top of a climbing wall if he didn’t have to support his entire weight,” Bamberger said.
After graduation, Bamberger and Jewell became roommates in Corvallis and founded Adaptive Ascent. They worked out of their garage, and Bamberger recalls many cold, late nights. “I have clear memories of Nathan with a blanket over his shoulders, hunched over a workstation, soldering circuits or writing code,” he said. Later, they moved into the Rogue Makers workspace just outside of town. Their first working prototype was ready in early 2022, even though both partners hold full-time jobs and run the company on the side.
MoonClimb, which is the size of a beefy briefcase and weighs about 25 pounds, is simple to use. Once the device is secured at the top of a climbing route with traditional gear, a rope is looped through it. One end attaches to the climber’s harness, while a climbing partner nearby serves as the belayer to take up slack and arrest falls. Power comes from a standard wall outlet.
With the rope pulled taut, the climber sits back until they’re suspended a foot or two above the ground so the machine can gauge their weight. MoonClimb’s assistance level is set through a smartphone app. With a 50% assist, for example, the climber needs to exert only half the total force required to ascend. Assistance can go up to 95% for climbers up to 310 pounds, and the level can be changed midclimb.
MoonClimb was initially developed for people with disabilities, but Jewell and Bamberger see the potential for a much larger market, such as novices who need a shot of confidence. They compare the device to e-bikes, which have become popular among people who know how to ride regular bicycles but just want a little more oomph.
There are about 500 climbing gyms in the U.S., and the number is growing. However, that market may not be big enough to attract major investors, Jewell says. The partners are exploring other channels, such as selling directly to adaptive sports groups. And market opportunities are bound to expand once a battery pack is integrated into the unit, allowing outdoor use. So far, the most effective marketing tactic has been letting people try MoonClimb.
“It’s been really cool to watch people who have never scaled a climbing wall reach the top,” Jewell said. “We’re excited that this technology can open up rock climbing to many more people.”
When fourth-year computer science student Harry Herzberg was in high school, his sister worked as a paraeducator who assisted students with learning disabilities by sitting with them in class, giving them one-on-one support. Her experiences, as well as his being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, inspired Herzberg to develop Alerty, a mobile app to help students — especially those with ADHD — perform better in class.
Dubbed “a paraeducator in your pocket,” the Alerty app transcribes class lectures in real time to help students see what they might have just missed. Herzberg explains that students with ADHD may unintentionally lose focus in class and — because college courses are often fast-paced, with information that builds upon itself — quickly get left behind.
Dmytro Shabanov (left) and Harry Herzberg discuss Alerty, the mobile app they helped create to enable students to perform better in class.
“I’ve had many classes where I’ve missed the teacher talking about the homework assignment, or a key point,” Herzberg said. “Then I’m spending the entire day or even weeks trying to catch up, just because I missed that one important point.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes were being taught asynchronously online, Herzberg liked that he was able to go back, replay the lectures, and absorb concepts he may have missed.
“I was able to get better grades and even made the dean’s list because I was able to go back and replay, slow down, and speed up the videos,” he said.
Alerty is designed to be used by instructors and students together. When the instructor makes an important point, they press a button on the app, which alerts students with a vibration on their phones or tablets. The app also highlights the corresponding part of the transcript in blue.
After class, students can review the lecture and, if necessary, select a portion of the transcript to ask for clarification. This feature also helps instructors to see where students are struggling over certain concepts. The app could prove helpful to students without ADHD, including those who have different learning styles, English language learners, and those who have difficulty hearing.
Herzberg and Dmytro Shabanov, a fourth-year student in finance and marketing, are joined on the Alerty team by their business partners Jade Zavsklavsky, Artemis Kearny, Nicholas Craycraft, Alexander Victoria Trujillo, and Freya Crowe.
The team, more than half of whom have ADHD or autism, recently won the TiE Oregon regional competition and the Social Entrepreneurship Award at The Indus Entrepreneurs’ University Global Pitch Competition and was one of 30 teams to advance to the semifinal round, out of some 1,400 accepted into the competition. Alerty also earned second place in the College of Business’s Launch Academy competition, and a grant from the 1517 Fund.
Mike Bailey, professor of computer science, beta-tested Alerty in one of his classes during spring term. “For those who have difficulty focusing and taking notes in class, I think this could be a game changer,” he said.
Confronting an embarrassing problem was the first step for two bioengineering alumni who invented an oral health care solution. The idea sparked in their senior design class, when they were asked to come up with 10 health care issues they wanted to improve. At the top of both of their lists was tonsil stones.
Even though Sydney Forbes, ’17, and Jessy Imdieke, ’17, were friends, they were shocked to find out they had tonsil stones in common. The condition occurs when substances like mucus and tiny bits of food collect in pits on the tonsils and harden into stones that harbor odor-causing bacteria.
“It’s a huge source of embarrassment and frustration, because it causes extreme bad breath,” Forbes said. For their project, Forbes and Imdieke designed a tool to allow people to remove their own tonsil stones at home.
After graduation, both got full-time jobs with biomedical startups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then the pandemic hit, and they saw an opportunity to return to their passion to create a new solution for tonsil stones.
In early 2020, they launched Tonsil Tech in Bend, with a third co-founder, Daniel Forbes. Sydney Forbes contacted Oregon State’s Advantage Accelerator, which was conducting programs online. After completing the Iterate and Launch programs, the team further refined their plan with the help of programs at University of Washington, the Washington Innovation Network, and the Oregon Bioscience Incubator. Their mentors at the Accelerator continue to support them, and they also get advice from Adam Krynicki, executive director in the Innovation Co-Lab at OSU-Cascades.
“Oregon State University was critical for the development of our company. The Accelerator programs gave us the mentorship, structure, and resources we needed to move forward,” Imdieke said.
Sydney Forbes (left) and Jessy Imdieke discuss their products — individual stone removal tools and TonsiFIX basic and premium kits.
In July 2021, Tonsil Tech brought to market the first tool specifically designed to remove tonsil stones. The tool, TonsiFIX (patent pending), features a teardrop-shaped loop at the end of a handle with an attached wrist strap, with details of its construction optimized for removing tonsil stones. The company sells the tool alone or in a kit that includes a travel pouch and a bright LED mirror light. Customers can purchase directly from tonsiltech.com, and the company plans to expand into retail and health care settings.
Tonsil Tech has raised $160,000 from various sources and competitions, including $60,000 through the Accelerator’s University Venture Development Fund. The Accelerator funding will allow the company to scale up production and lower costs by moving from 3D printing to injection molding, Imdieke said.
Success for the Tonsil Tech team is more than their business achievements. They can see that they are changing people’s lives.
“Customers continuously tell us that they have never told anyone about the problem, and yet it affects about 10% of the population,” Imdieke said. “Something that you could think of as a nuisance has a big impact on people’s self-esteem.”