By Steven Metcalf
Northwest Asian Weekly
Billy Wu had an idea. He wanted to make life a little easier for young people around him. That idea took the form of an app that helps people connect with clubs. When a Harvard student put his mind to changing the way people stay connected, Facebook was born. What Mark Zuckerberg accomplished in revolutionizing social media is not too different from Wu’s goal with his ClubWhat app.
“It would be pretty awesome to see the same thing happen with ClubWhat,” Wu said.
He may have a long way to go to achieve what Facebook has. But that’s OK. He has time. He’s only a junior at Bellevue’s Newport High School.
Alex Jiao also had a pretty big idea. It sounds like something right out of science fiction: the ability to re-grow body parts from stem cells that were stored and grown in a consumer cell bank. The storage and growing parts are Jiao’s innovation.
“The grand dream, though, is to try and break the mold of what a typical biotech company does,” Jiao said. “I want to be consumer focused, trying to bring cutting-edge biomedical technology to people.”
This is more than a dream. MiPS Bank is a goal the University of Washington doctoral student is working toward right now.
Jiao’s and Wu’s ideas got a lot of local exposure Tuesday night at the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch competition.
They were among 14 finalists who took the stage at McCaw Hall to deliver a five-minute pitch for their ideas to judges and an estimated crowd of 800. The annual contest connects social innovators in the community, young and old, with business, philanthropic, and non-profit leaders who want to empower them to change the world.
Both young men were among the night’s winners. Wu finished second in the high school category and won $500. In the University category Jiao placed second which earned him $1,000.
An app inspired by a bad experience
As a freshman at Newport High Billy Wu was eager to join some clubs on campus, but he ran into an obstacle. The campus directory had outdated information about club meeting times and locations.
“It was a pretty awful experience,” Wu said.
Two years later he had a plan to start his own club for entrepreneurs, but he did not want his fellow students to go through what he had as a freshman. That’s where the idea for ClubWhat came in.
“ClubWhat is a platform for students and clubs to connect,” Wu said.
Students can use the free app to search a database of clubs at their schools listed by category. Easy.
“I struggled with finding my passion as a freshman,” said Wu, who moved here from China 16 years ago. “The reward would be to help other freshmen find theirs by getting into the clubs they want.”
When he went into this venture, Wu said he had his great idea and little else. He lacked a lot of the technical know-how to develop the app. But as any true child of the digital age would do, he turned to the Internet for help. He said he found information online that showed him how to write the program to create the ClubWhat database.
And that database is huge, just like Wu’s vision. It not only includes all Seattle-area schools, Wu said it contains every middle school, high school and university in the country. He said he sees ClubWhat’s potential to give “exposure to clubs that don’t have as high a profile as others,” in particular, underrepresented clubs.
And from his involvement with Fast Pitch Wu has seen other possibilities.
“I wasn’t clear about the business potential and viability of ClubWhat before Fast Pitch,” Wu said. “Making ClubWhat sustainable and look good to investors would make it successful in the future.”
Wu enlisted the help of two school friends for the all-student venture. Patrick Lin, a senior at Newport, handles the business side. Isaac Chan, also a senior and student body vice-president, has been the app’s evangelist. He uses his position in student government to spread the word about ClubWhat. Chan is in charge of outreach and marketing.
While the money from their second place win was a good thing, Wu said “it’s all about the experience” of learning and growing through Fast Pitch.
Banking on the future
What started as a purely academic exercise eventually turned into the idea behind miPS Bank. It came to Jiao—who’s in his last year of the Ph. D program at the U.W.’s Department of Bioengineering—when he took a class on entrepreneurship.
“It was an idea that could combine my skills and passion of biotech and science with the ability to grow an idea in a classroom setting,” Jiao said. This was his first experience working on a business idea.
His vision is to create a system where people can store and grow induced pluripotent stem cells. These are stem cells with the ability to regenerate indefinitely and turn into any other cell in the body. They hold the promise to regenerate limbs and organs.
If Jiao’s venture takes root in the marketplace, it could be an example of the successful marriage between science and business.
“I think there’s a lot of commercial potential in biotech, but many scientists are focused on research first,” Jiao said.
“Starting miPS Bank can give me the tools to learn how to commercialize other technologies.”
Fast Pitch showed Jiao how to explain the complex science behind miPS Bank, thereby allowing the general public to realize its commercial potential.
“Learning to formulate a pitch which speaks to investors instead of researchers has been incredibly helpful,” Jiao said.
Originally from the Midwest, Jiao moved here to pursue his doctorate in 2010. Now he’s on the verge of blazing a trail with the first ever consumer stem cell bank. An exciting prospect that moved closer to reality with funding and exposure through Fast Pitch.
“Totally, totally thankful,” Jiao said. “It’s just awesome getting to win.” (end)
Steven Metcalf can be reached at email@example.com.