UCLA Team Wins 2021 Heartland Challenge With Platform to End Late-Stage Cancer Diagnosis

UCLA Team Wins 2021 Heartland Challenge With Platform to End Late-Stage Cancer Diagnosis
Cari Humphry

Nur Labs, a graduate student startup team from the University of California at Los Angeles, BioDesign program won the 2021 Heartland Challenge on Friday, April 16.  

Nur Labs has developed a patent-pending, non-traditional, non-invasive liquid biopsy platform to detect cancer earlier, when it is most treatable. 

The team secured $50,000 in prize money by taking first place and said it plans to use the funding to expand the size and scope of its next blood-based institutional review board study. 

"We are investing in the business. Our first priority is to complete our IRB feasibility study to iterate upon the machine-learning algorithms, then publish the results of our clinical findings," said Sumita T. Jonak, founder and CEO of Nur Labs. "This feat has all of us super energized." 

"It takes courage to build a business, and the founders who succeed nearly always credit mentors and strong networks for being critical factors in the highest-risk early stages," said Sarah Goforth, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which oversees the competition.  

"The Heartland Challenge attracts exceptional student teams from around the world with the promise of a well-run competition and a large prize pool, but it serves them most deeply through the relationships they build here, with exceptional judges and all of the members of our community who tune in and reach out." 

Jonak added that the team is planning for their next study to be seven times larger than their current one and cover multiple states, including Arkansas. 

Jonak called the Heartland Challenge an "incredible experience" and praised the judges for providing "actionable feedback" that helped Nur Labs advance. 

"It was a great learning experience both from the judges and the other teams. We are very fortunate to have participated and are a better team as a result of going through this process," Jonak said. 

Designed to simulate the process of raising venture capital for a high-growth venture, the Heartland Challenge invited 12 semifinalist student teams from eight universities, spanning New York to Singapore, to compete for a $96,000 prize pool.  

Backup, a U of A team seeking to be the Uber of vacation rental cleaning, finished second in the Heartland Challenge and the elevator competition, taking home $27,000 for second place overall and second place elevator pitch award.  

Urogix, a team from Washington University in St. Louis developing a minimally invasive surgical device to counter prostate enlargement, finished third overall and won the Innovation Award, securing $11,000. The the $1,000 Innovation Award, new to this year's competition, was sponsored by Delta Solar. The Little Rock-based energy company was founded by U of A alumnus Douglas Hutchings.  

BioSeal XE, from Oklahoma State University, finished fourth and won $5,000 for its wound bioadhesive that stops bleeding and accelerates wound healing for emergency situations involving cuts, tears or punctures. 

Cerobex, which is seeking to commercialize a new drug delivery system that bypasses the blood-brain barrier, won the elevator pitch competition. The team from Tufts University took home $3,000. 

The Heartland Challenge was held virtually for the second straight year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation oversaw the competition with help from the Arkansas Capital Corporation. The U of A's Sam M. Walton College of Business hosted the competition again with generous support from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation

The five teams taking home prize money:  

  • Backup from the U of A is 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 from Oklahoma State University has created 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. 

  • Cerobex from Tufts University 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.  

  • Nur Labs from UCLA is 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. 

  • Urogix from Washington University in St. Louis has developed 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.  

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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