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Inaugural Baquerizo Innovation Grant Recipients Named

$20,000 program supports Duke Engineering undergraduate entrepreneurship

By Jeni Baker

Duke undergraduate entepreneurs developing a device that uses air-filled tubes to move patients safely and a smartphone device to diagnose eye diseases are the inaugural recipients of the Baquerizo Innovation Grant (BIG).

Also, two student-founded company finalists – one working on a low-cost animal tagging system for biology research and a second developing a device to improve the health of coastal waters – will receive mentoring from Duke Engineering’s entrepreneurship experts.

>go BIG logoBIG is an annual $20,000 award program created by Duke Engineering and the Baquerizo family to promote innovation, teamwork and entrepreneurship among Duke undergraduates and to support efforts to commercialize their ideas.

After an application period last fall, a pool of applicants was reduced to four finalists.

Two winners – student-formed companies OptiML and Zephyr Mobility, Inc. – will receive BIG funding to help them develop their projects, as well as 15 hours each of one-on-one professional support from leading intellectual property law firm Meunier Carlin & Curfman, LLC.

They also will receive – along with the two remaining finalists, Maralga and OpenTag – 15 consultation hours each from Duke Engineering’s resident entrepreneur experts, Bill Walker and Steve McClelland.

“My family is deeply thankful to Duke and the Pratt School of Engineering for the opportunities they’ve given us,” said Duke Engineering alumnus Sebastian Baquerizo. “BIG allows us to give back to Duke in a way that goes hand in hand with Duke Engineering’s mission to develop the next leaders and innovators of our society.”

"BIG allows us to give back to Duke in a way that goes hand in hand with Duke Engineering’s mission to develop the next leaders and innovators of our society."

Sebastian BaquerizO

The spirit of the grant competition, dubbed “go BIG,” is that real technological innovation can be accomplished by undergraduates, says McClelland.

“We want to encourage Duke undergrads to consider how technology can be used to have an impact on society,” said McClelland, a Duke Engineering graduate who has founded two companies, one of which was sold to Yahoo! in 2010. “The significant scale of Baquerizo grants give teams with early-stage projects the resources they need to really pursue their ideas.”

Walker, also a Duke Engineering alumnus and the Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurial Ventures at Duke Engineering, agrees.

“BIG is like the first bit of fertilizer that great ideas need to grow,” says Walker, an entrepreneur who holds more than 20 patents. “Over time, it will help get the best ideas into the marketplace, where they can help real people.”

Projects With Impact



Anuj Thakkar, Kevin Zheng, Nikhil Ravi and Pranav Warman of OptiMLAn artificial intelligence-powered retinal-imaging device, OptiML integrates mobile phone cameras with a low-cost ocular imaging mount and proprietary machine learning algorithms – allowing anyone with a smartphone to detect a number of eye diseases, including glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

“OptiML has the potential to be the first automated smartphone ocular diagnostic tool, capable of improving the lives of millions of people around the world,” says team leader Anuj Thakkar, a mechanical engineering student in the Class of 2020.

Thakkar is teamed with students in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences studying mathematics, biology and computer science. The team members includes students Nikhil Ravi, Pranav Warman, and Kevin Zheng.

Zephyr Mobility

Sam Fox of Zephyr MobilityTeam leader Sam Fox and Venezia Leone, both studying biomedical engineering, are testing an inflatable repositioning device designed to reduce bedsores among immobile patients and to reduce the risk of injury to nurses and other health care providers.

BIG offers significant funding a a point much earlier than most investors do, Fox said – helping projects progress to a stage where they are ready for investment.

The Zephyr Mobility team is excited about the professional guidance it will receive.

“Getting expert guidance early in the process will help us use our limited funds in the best way possible,” Fox said.



Jacob Baca, Henrik Cox, Eliza Harrison and Steve Burcat of MaralgaMaralga is developing a device that collects excess biomass from algae blooms along U.S. coasts and on the surface of tropical waters to improve the marine ecosystem and process gathered materials in sustainable, beneficial ways.

“The BIG is exactly the kind of support many undergraduate teams are looking for as they create their projects,” says team leader Henrik Cox, a mechanical engineering student in the Class of 2018. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for students pursuing purposeful and unique work.”

The Maralga team is delighted to receive consultation time with the Entrepreneurship @ Duke Engineering staff.

“Being offered these consultation hours is a significant bonus,” Cox says. “You can write proposals for financial incentives all day long, but having the opportunity to work closely with professionals could be the deciding factor on a project’s ultimate success.”

Team members include Duke mechanical engineering student Steven Burcat, Duke economics and computer science student Jacob Baca, and University of North Carolina environmental health science student Eliza Harrison.


Sam Kelly and Henrik Cox of OpenTagOpenTag is developing hardware and software to deploy biosensor tags, helping researchers learn more about how wild animals live. The project is aimed at lowering the barrier for research and data collection across the animal kingdom.

“Current technology is expensive, narrowly focused, difficult to use, and restrictive of the types of researchers who use it,” says team leader Sam Kelly, a mechanical engineering student in the Class of 2018. “This creates inherent limitations on the species studied and the parameters measured.”

“OpenTag is working to break these barriers, and opportunities like the Baquerizo Innovation Grant allows undergraduates to see their projects beyond their time at Duke,” Kelly said.

Team members include biomedical engineering student Ashley Blawas, mechanical engineering student Henrik Cox, and Carmen Hoyt, who is studying biology and earth and ocean sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Giving Back to Grow Ideas

The Duke connection is strong for the grant’s namesake Baquerizo family.

Alumni and current students include Sebastian Baquerizo, E’17; Rodolfo E. Baquerizo, E’15; Luis Martinez-Moure Baquerizo, Trinity’17; and Gabriela Martinez-Moure Baquerizo, Trinity’18.

“Duke has extremely talented minds working to solve real-world problems,” Sebastian Baquerizo said. “Seeing the bold, transformative ideas of this year’s teams only makes us more excited to see what next year’s applicants have to offer.”