Campus News

Self-navigating boat startup sails into first in Panasci competition

From left: Thiru Vikram, Emilie Reynolds and Alexander Zhitelzeyf.

Taking first place in the 2016 Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition are, from left, Thiru Vikram, Emilie Reynolds and Alexander Zhitelzeyf. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published April 14, 2016

“A revolution has started in the shipping industry, and perhaps Buffalo will be known as the place where it all started.”
Emilie Reynolds, vice president of engineering
Buffalo Automation Group

Three UB undergraduates took first place last night in UB’s Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition (Panasci TEC) for a robotics startup that makes and sells self-piloting technology and automation tools to ship operators.

Thiru Vikram, a computer and electrical engineering student from Lovedale, India; Emilie Reynolds, a mechanical engineering student from Webster; and Alexander Zhitelzeyf, a mechanical engineering student from Brooklyn, will receive $25,000 in startup capital, as well as in-kind services valued at more than $27,000 for their company, Buffalo Automation Group.

The system uses data from onboard sensors and other marine navigation aids to recognize navigational hazards and automatically steer around them. The group plans to aggressively expand in the Great Lakes market this year with cutting-edge autopilots that learn navigation techniques from the crew.

Making boats smarter means fewer collisions and lower insurance costs, says Vikram, the company’s CEO. “Wherever there is commercial shipping, we believe there is an application for our product and an opportunity to increase efficiency,” he says.

“Shipping is the backbone of the world economy,” adds Zhitelzeyf, who serves as COO. “Creating a more efficient shipping infrastructure will benefit trade and increase globalization.”

The system can be implemented in both commercial and recreational vessels, and the team sees additional applications in water taxis, rental pontoons and survey vehicles. There are also vast opportunities to capture big data recorded from ships that will allow analysts to increase route efficiencies.

“A revolution has started in the shipping industry, and perhaps Buffalo will be known as the place where it all started,” says Reynolds, vice president of engineering.

The winning team also will receive in-kind awards worth $27,000 for legal services from Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC; accounting services from Kopin & Co. PC; human resource startup services from the People Plan by HR Foundations Inc.; business development services from the UB Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR); and office space from North Forest Office Space.

To top it off, 43North’s John Gavigan announced the winners would automatically get a bid for the semifinals of the 43North competition.

This is the team’s second year in the Panasci TEC and Vikram says he and his colleagues worked relentlessly to improve their business model, thanks to feedback from the judges.

Vikram, Reynolds and Zhitelzeyf have taken advantage of the rapidly expanding entrepreneurship ecosystem at UB and in the Buffalo Niagara region. They’ve tapped into resources at the School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL), STOR and UB’s new Blackstone LaunchPad. They also participated in the 2014 Elevator Pitch competition held by UB’s Entrepreneurship Academy and worked at the Buffalo Student Sandbox. The team now operates out of the UB Gateway building as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s START-UP NY tax-free business program.

Earning second-place in the Panasci TEC were Charles Jones of Bear Creek, North Carolina; Mahmoud Kamal Ahmadi of Torbat-e Jam, Iran, both doctoral students in chemical and biological engineering; and Blaine Pfeifer, UB associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. They will collect $10,000 for their venture, Shay Bioproducts, a precious metal retrieval unit used to recover and reuse pricy metals.

All participants will be offered co-working space in dig, part of the Thomas R. Beecher Jr. Innovation Center.

Pared down from 22 first-round pitches, five teams of finalists delivered 10-minute presentations at the Center for the Arts and were evaluated on how well they described the feasibility and marketability of their venture, proved the need for their product or service, and presented potential sources of capital.

Other new venture ideas included a medical product company that proposes a superior healing alternative for conventional tissue vessel grafts in vascular surgery; a cloud-based application to capture and preserve a family’s oral history; and a social network for learning new languages.

Serving as judges for the final event were Bob Fritzinger, UB entrepreneur-in-residence; John Gavigan, executive director of 43North; Anthony Johnson, partner, Buffalo BioSciences, and president and CEO of Empire Genomics; Robert Neubert, director of UB’s Entrepreneurship Academy and clinical assistant professor in the School of Management; Tom Sass, director of consumer markets, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York; and Rohini Srihari, associate professor in UB’s Department of Computer Science.

Now in its 16th year, Panasci TEC was created by the School of Management and STOR, and is funded with a $1 million endowment from the late Henry A. Panasci Jr. to facilitate and promote the commercialization of UB-generated technologies.

Hosted by the CEL, the event brings together UB students from science, technology, business and other disciplines to maximize their potential and create viable businesses in Western New York.