Tucson tech: New twist on ant farm wins pitch at IdeaFunding event | Tech Parks Arizona

Tucson tech: New twist on ant farm wins pitch at IdeaFunding event


Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

Like many businesses, Tucson entrepreneur Soroosh Hedayati was forced to make a hard pivot from his budding museum-exhibit business last year when COVID-19 all but shut down the attractions industry.

Now, Hedayati is looking to grow an offshoot business, Micro Safari, offering kits that combine self-contained, micro-ecosystems with mobile phone microscopy in a new twist on the time-honored ant farm.

Watch Micro Safari founder Soroosh Hedayati, winner of the main-stage pitch contest at IdeaFunding, explain the micro-ecosystem.

And he’s ready to jump-start his company after winning the main-stage competition at IdeaFunding, an annual Tucson business-pitch event held virtually on April 15.

For making the winning pitch, Hedayati won $10,000 in cash and a year of free incubation at University of Arizona Center for Innovation, valued at $10,000. Micro Safari also won $5,000 for the winning pitch in the consumer product category.

Other IdeaFunding award winners included several University of Arizona technology spinoffs — Paramium Technologies, Metfora and TheraCea Pharma — and several members of the UA Center for Innovation business incubator. Others were founded by UA alumni or students.

IdeaFunding, a “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition held in Tucson for more than 20 years, went virtual this year and was webcast live from Arizona FORGE at Roy Place due to pandemic concerns.

Adopted by the nonprofit entrepreneurship group Startup Tucson in 2014, it was a main event at the Tenwest Impact Festival, a 10-day series of events that was canceled this year and has been postponed until 2022.

IdeaFunding was bigger than ever as a virtual event, with 1,370 online participants from more than 320 cities across the globe, including 80 startup companies competing for over $65,000 in cash in prizes — and nearly 100 investors.

“It really blew our expectations out of the water,” said Dre Thompson, executive vice president of Startup Tucson. “The tech was really, really strong this year with some innovations that are potentially super disruptive to their industries.”

The event’s title sponsor was the Arizona Commerce Authority, with co-presenters Pima Community College and the UA’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship, along with the Desert Angels and more than 30 other community partners.

“Already some really exciting stories have come out of it,” Thompson said, adding she’s heard of some participating startups already entering negotiations with prospective investors.

Pandemic Pivot

Hedayati, 26, who was born and raised in Tucson and graduated from University High School, doesn’t have an engineering degree but has been engineering things since he was a teen making potato guns.

He spent nearly five years working for Creative Machines, a local company specializing in interactive museum exhibits and public art, before launching his own company in 2019.

Hedayati’s company produced several different museum exhibits, including the Micro Safari, which features a sealed, clear-plastic terrarium viewed through a microscope controlled with a joystick and projected on a large flat-panel display.

Hedayati sold a couple of Micro Safaris to science centers in California, and was trying to close his biggest deal yet last spring when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions shut down the attractions industry.

With few alternatives, Hedayati created a consumer version of his Micro Safari exhibit, centered on a flat clear-plastic container filled with compost and seeded with some 30 separate soil-dwelling species like springtails, soil mites, worms and nematodes.

The habitat, which can foster thousands of individual organisms, can be viewed via a cell phone with a clip-on microscope included in the kit.

Hedayati said he makes the habitat material in-house, using sterile compost seeded with more than 30 soil-dwelling species allowed under regulations enforced by the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The company hired a half-dozen people temporarily to help him assemble a small inventory of Micro Safari kits, which are for sale on the company’s website, microsafari.org, currently for $91. The kits are also sold on Amazon.

Hedayati said he originally developed Micro Safari for museum exhibits thinking it would be an easier path to market and a steppingstone to a consumer rollout.

“There are certain challenges with creating a consumer product, like scale and upfront capital and whatnot, that I didn’t really have at the time,” he said.

Hedayati said his IdeaFunding success should help in that regard, adding that some potential deals are in the works that could bring Micro Safari to a larger market sooner than he could himself.

“We’ll just have to see what the future presents,” he said, adding that a collaboration with or sale to a major industry partner would help him scale up the business much faster than he could on his own.

Other Winners

Here’s a look at the other IdeaFunding pitch award winners by category. Each received prizes of $5,000 except for the $1,000 People’s Choice Award.

Biotech and Life Sciences: Metfora (Ruslan Rafikov and Dr. Olga Rafikova). The UA faculty members are pioneering a new method for diagnosing hypertension and other diseases based on the analysis of metabolites in blood and using machine-learning algorithms to detect the presence of a wide range of diseases.

Software as a Service: Patter (Aaron Gopp). Patter is a software application that allows teams to better organize and manage their meetings by integrating with current team tools. The app developed by UA alumnus Gopp allows organizers to take notes and track follow-ups directly in the meeting, and attendees can follow along with a unique link.

Science & Technology: Paramium Technology (Justin Hyatt). The startup is based on technology developed at the UA to fabricate high-precision compound curve reflective panels, enabling ground station and radio telescope designers to create affordable complex reflector shapes.

United Way Social Impact Award: Diabetes Now (Mica Kinder). The company offers direct-to-consumer health care for people with diabetes including concierge medicine and wholesale pricing on pharmaceuticals.

Adelante Arizona: Ku’Panda (Janae Peats). Ku’Panda sells handcrafted herbal tea skincare products inspired by Tucson’s dry air and using locally-sourced wildcrafted herbs. (Two prizes were awarded to companies led by women or minority founders)

Adelante Arizona: Obánj (Melissa Kiguwa). Obánj is a membership-based luxury jewelry company allowing members to borrow designer jewelry from makers such at Dior, YSL and Gucci for $29 per month.

Optics Valley Optical Award: US Air Tech Corp.-USAT (Patrick Gbele). Doing business as USAT, the company is developing advanced systems for satellite-based internet service, based on the spherical Luneburg lens developed at the UA. Gbele helped develop the lens while earning his doctorate in computer and electrical engineering from the UA.

McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship Young Entrepreneur Prize: Revolute Robotics (Collin Taylor and Sahand Sabet). The UA student-led company has created the first energy-efficient, spherical hybrid robot capable of both rolling and flying, initially focusing on the agriculture market to collect detailed crop data to increase output and reduce costs.

People’s Choice Award: TheraCea Pharma (Iman Daryaei). The company is working to bring to market a new chemical process that will enable increased use of PET (positron emission tomography) scans, allowing for earlier diagnoses of cancer. Daryaei co-invented the technology as he earned his UA doctorate in biological chemistry in 2016. TheraCea previously won the UACI Sponsored Launch fueled by Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona competition. The prize, valued at $15,000, included a $5,000 cash prize and space at UACI’s new biotech incubator in Oro Valley.


Read the Original Tucson.com Article By David Wichner Here

Tech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park ArizonaTech Park Arizona