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Penn State Entrepreneurs Giving the Gift of Speech, Innovating Beer Production, and More

by on August 27, 2015 6:00 AM

Mary Elizabeth McCulloch has a dream.

She wants to give people the gift of speech. 

And for the Penn State biomedical engineering student, that dream is quickly becoming a reality.

McCulloch was accepted into the Summer Founders Program, an entrepreneurial initiative as part of Penn State president Eric Barron's $30 million Invent Penn State program.

As one of the six student entrepreneurs chosen for the summer program, McCulloch's company Project Vive was given $10,000 to focus fully on her startup. The six companies showcased their work at Demo Day on Wednesday night. As program director Eli Kariv said after McCulloch's presentation, he's never "seen an entire audience's jaws collectively drop at the same time before."

She stood in front of a crowd of about 50 people with a fancy-looking glove on her hand, made some barely noticeable gestures with her fingers, and the jaw-dropping began.

"Hi, my name is Mary Elizabeth," a robotic female voice said. "What’s yours?”

Project Vive created what McCulloch said is an affordable device for those who can't speak. She said that there are an estimated 3.4 million people in the world that are unable to speak because of cerebral palsy. 

"And that's just cerebral palsy," she added. "The current devices are expensive and difficult to fix when they're broken. You're leaving someone without the ability to speak for days or weeks at a time because specialists are needed for repairs."

Her competition includes an LCD screen with picture icons that costs over $5,000 and eye-tracking software that costs anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000 and takes a specialist to fix. The Project Vive glove, which requires small hand movements to form full sentences, will cost just $500 in the United States and $200 to $250 in low income countries. Better yet, it's easy to train family members and caretakers in, removing the barrier of a lengthy repair or training process.

Photo of Summer Founders Program team members by Zach Berger/

Another impressive presentation came from Jason Cohen, founder and CEO of Gastrograph. The company has created machine-learning and artificial intelligence-based sensory tools for the food and beverage industry. In other words, it can save beer and coffee producers money in flavor profiling and help flag bad batches earlier.

"Every time you pick up a beer or a bag of coffee you expect a flawless product with flavors that remain the same," Cohen said. "The current system is complex and expensive. ... And new solutions like tasting journals are not data driven or actionable. Hedonic applications like Untappd are receiving data too late or quality control when the product is already in the customers' hands."

Cohen has come up with a solution. His software includes mobile-based sensory reviews, real-time sensory analytics, and applications throughout the enterprise. They are able to do flavor profiling, demographic targeting, flavor profile optimization, and cognitive targeting. In other words, the software can determine what demographic a product is best suited for based on flavor components and what "buzzwords" would be best to use in marketing the product.

The software can also flag and predict flaws and contaminations in real time with over 99.99 percent accuracy, saving a producer from putting time and money into a batch that will eventually need to be thrown out. Cohen recently turned down a $2.2 million acquisition offer and is prepared to start a second round of investments, raising $750,000 to move into other areas of the food and beverage industry. 

When Summer Founders Program director Eli Kariv first envisioned the idea to assist student startups with $10,000 grants, he never thought the results would be as impressive as they were on display at Demo Day. 

"We started out with a really audacious mission to give teams $10,000 for no equity without giving them much advice or holding daily meetings, which is unheard of," he said. "We’re so impressed by the impact you have all had and the growth you’ve experience over the summer and I’m sure that no matter what career you have, you'll all do great things."

The other companies involved in the Summer Founders Program are innovating the endoscope, resume-building, fitness for diabetes sufferers, and 3D-printing. You can read more about the other companies here.

Zach Berger is the managing editor of He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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