12 Student Startup Teams Compete For $96,000 Cash Prize Pool in U of A's Heartland Challenge

Cari Humphry

The Heartland Challenge, a global student startup competition designed to simulate the process of raising venture capital with a cash prize pool of $96,000, kicks off at 5 p.m. today, Thursday, April 15.

Tracy Gaudet will be the keynote speaker for the event. Gaudet is the executive director of the Whole Health Institute, a non-profit founded by philanthropist Alice Walton to radically redesign the systems that impact health and well-being with the ultimate goal of making the Whole Health model affordable and accessible to all.

Speaking about the 12 graduate student teams who will compete at the event, Gaudet shared, "This year's semi-finalists are pushing the boundaries of current thinking in everything from sustainability to health care, creating more equitable workplaces, reducing waste and building better communities.

"These students demonstrate the best of entrepreneurial thinking and that is, from my opinion, seeing large systems that are broken as an opportunity for radical transformation."

The challenge begins with a live-streamed announcement of the finalists at 5 p.m. The final round begins at 8 a.m. on Friday, April 16, and will also be publicly live-streamed via the U of A Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation website

An elevator pitch competition, decided by the audience, will begin at noon Friday and lasts 45 minutes.

This year's challenge includes teams from eight universities, from New York to Singapore. Teams will be questioned and receive feedback from a network of judges, including angel investors, serial entrepreneurs and industry executives. 

The winner of the Heartland Challenge will receive $50,000. Second place takes home $25,000; third place, $10,000; and fourth place, $5,000. First place in the elevator pitch wins $3,000, while second place earns $2,000. 

Delta Solar, a Little Rock-based solar power company formed by U of A alumnus Douglas Hutchings, will also provide a $1,000 Innovation Prize. The money will be awarded during the final round and go to the team with the greatest potential to impact their community or industry. 

"Innovation is core to Delta Solar as they work to reduce the costs of implementing solar in Arkansas and the surrounding region," said Hutchings, CEO of Delta Solar. 

"Novel science and technology can create huge opportunities for entrepreneurs. We are excited to support the Heartland Challenge and the student teams that are participating." 

The U of A Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation will oversee the competition, with support from the Arkansas Capital Corporation. The competition is hosted again this year by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the U of A with generous support from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.  

Aurign, a music publishing startup from Georgia State University, won the inaugural Heartland Challenge in 2020, securing $50,000 for their idea of using blockchain technology to securely file music-publishing documents.  

"Winning the Heartland Challenge opened a lot of doors for the company and put us in incredible position to receive further funding," said Robert Hatcher, Aurign's CEO.  

Hatcher added that his company is currently in beta testing and working through legal aspects of implementing their platform.  

The 12 semi-finalist teams: 

  • Backup, a two-sided marketplace that connects Airbnb hosts with a reliable, affordable workforce of cleaners whose services align with the specific requirements of high-turnover rental properties. Backup says it will be the Uber of vacation rental cleaning in seven years. Backup is representing the U of A.

  • BioSeal XE, a wound bioadhesive that stops bleeding and accelerates wound healing for emergency situations involving cuts, tears or punctures. The initial market is horse owners who live on remote ranches to treat horses suffering traumatic wounds. BioSeal XE says it supplies immediate blood clotting, accelerated wound healing, infection prevention, easy application, cost savings and increased reliability. BioSeal XE is representing Oklahoma State University.

  • BullyProof, a software analytics platform that helps companies protect their workplace culture. BullyProof includes M.B.A. and M.F.A. graduate students who are representing the U of A.

  • Cerobex Drug Delivery Technologies, which plans to commercialize a novel lipid-nanoparticle based drug delivery system that has demonstrated the ability to transport many different types of therapeutic molecules across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain tissue. Cerobex plans to develop treatments for select rare neurological diseases and to license treatments and the delivery system to pharmaceutical companies. Cerobex is representing Tufts University.

  • Closed Composites, which recycles carbon fiber composite waste into reusable organic materials and pristine carbon fiber mats using a proprietary chemical reaction. Closed Composites allows the recovery of more value from waste composites than other leading recycling strategies. Closed Composites is representing the University of Southern California.

  • Nivera Solutions, Nivera has created a durable, multifaceted product that keeps ice from coating a surface. The product is applicable from protecting energy infrastructure to fighting food waste. The team includes materials science and M.B.A. students currently in New Venture Development. Nivera is representing the U of A.

  • Nurlabs, a patent-pending, non-traditional, non-invasive liquid biopsy platform using materials science and machine learning for early cancer screening, bringing a fresh perspective to an old problem. Nurlabs is representing the University of California at Los Angeles.

  • Paldara Inc., a patent-pending antimicrobial hydrogel to prevent 99 percent of catheter-associated urinary tract infections, the number one healthcare acquired infection. Prevention beats remediation economically and from a quality-of-life perspective. Paldara is representing Oklahoma State University.

  • ReGen Technologies, which has a pilot product SynFloTM, a vascular graft based on a patent-pending technology that significantly reduces vascular surgery-associated risk and health care costs. The technology has also shown promise as a potential solution to other frustrations related with infections, suggesting the proprietary technology could yield a broader surgical product platform. ReGen Technologies includes biomedical researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and business students from the U of A.

  • Ripely provides a 100 percent or more increase in the shelf life of fresh food. Ripely produces edible, tasteless, odorless and invisible protein-based protective coatings for fresh food that are easily applied by food retailers and consumers, at no expense to food quality. Ripely says its mission is to provide the largest innovation in fighting food waste since the advent of refrigeration. Ripely is representing Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

  • Uniphage Inc., which uses machine learning to mainstream bacteriophage solution usage by making the process of producing bacteriophage solutions significantly "less random," faster, cheaper and more robust. Uniphage also uses the same core set of bacteriophages with minor genetic modifications for every new disease to make the regulatory approval process much easier. Uniphage is representing Yale-NUS College.

  • Urogix, which has a minimally invasive surgical device for age-related prostate enlargement that offers an alternative to years-long medications or more invasive surgical procedures by providing immediate and permanent relief without complications. Urogix is representing Washington University in St. Louis.

About the U of A Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation: The Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation creates and curates innovation and entrepreneurship experiences for students across all disciplines. Through the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub, McMillon Innovation Studio and Startup Village, OEI provides free workshops and programs — including social and corporate innovation design teams, venture internships, competitions and startup coaching. OEI also offers on-demand support for students who will be innovators within existing organizations and entrepreneurs who start something new.  

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among fewer than 3 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.


Brandon Howard, communications and social media specialist
Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
479-418-4803, bjhoward@uark.edu


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