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UT graduate student Lia Winter, center, and teammates Preston Dishner, right, and Ryan Cunningham show off trophies from the University of Manitoba Stu Clarke Investment Challenge. The team won the top prize at the competition on March 9, 2019.

Graduate student Lia Winter won first place and about $16,000 in prize money last week at an international pitch competition in Manitoba, Canada, for her patent-pending surgical device, EasyWhip.

Winter’s company, Winter Innovations, was one of three student start-ups to win four pitch competitions over the past two weeks, collecting more than $42,500 in prize money to invest in their companies.

“We’re proud to see our student entrepreneurs advancing to this level of competition,” said Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business. “Their continued engagement in our programs through mentorship and experiential learning opportunities is building sustainable, investable businesses.”

In addition to the University of Manitoba Stu Clarke Investment Challenge, Winter Innovations took the top prize at the University of Louisville Brown-Forman Cardinal Challenge on March 2. The prize included $15,000 and an in-kind package.

Quantum Lock, founded by UT graduate student Erica Grant, won top prize in “What’s the Big Idea? 48-hour Launch” competition on March 3. Qardian Labs, founded by Sofia Tomov, won first place and $1,500 in the inaugural Scots Innovation Challenge hosted February 28 by Maryville College.

All three companies were winners in the fall 2018 Boyd Venture Challenge, hosted by the Anderson Center. Since receiving funding from that competition, all three have worked with Anderson Center mentors to grow their businesses.

Winter Innovations

Winter, a dual MS–MBA candidate studying biomedical engineering and business administration in the Tickle College of Engineering and the Haslam College of Business, plans to use her prize money to conduct FDA testing and optimize the design of the company’s marquee product, EasyWhip.

EasyWhip is a two-part detachable needle designed for use in orthopedic reconstruction surgeries. Winter, a native of Pittsburgh, designed the medical product.

“We worked intensely preparing for both competitions, and it is so great to see our efforts pay off,” said Winter. “During competition, we faced some of the toughest questions we’ve experienced, and the judges really challenged us to dig deep into our financial and go-to-market strategies. We also received some great feedback from these judges that has already made a significant impact on our business plan.”

Winter pitched the business plan with teammates Preston Dishner and Ryan Cunningham, both in the Haslam College of Business. Dishner, from Bristol, Tennessee, is a dual MS–MBA candidate studying business analytics. Cunningham, of Collierville, Tennessee, is a senior supply chain management major and entrepreneurship minor.

“This team faced some incredible competition and stepped up to the plate. They were able to answer tough questions from investors in their industry and showcased their solid business plan and presentation skills,” said Youngs, who serves as the team’s faculty advisor.

Winter credited the Anderson Center and the mentoring the team has received for helping them develop their business plan and prepare for the competitions. Winter Innovations gained experience as a two-time awardee of the Boyd Venture Challenge and former winner of the Vol Court Speaker Series and Pitch Competition hosted by the Anderson Center.

Quantum Lock

Quantum Lock, which uses a quantum property found in light to increase the security of smart locks, won $10,000 in reimbursable business costs in the “What’s the Big Idea? 48-Hour Launch.” The competition is presented annually by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, the Development Corporation of Knox County, and Harper Auto Square.

UT graduate student Erica Grant won first place in the “What’s the Big Idea? 48-hour Launch” competition on March 3 in Knoxville for her start-up Quantum Lock.
Erica Grant

Grant, from Richmond, Virginia, is a doctoral candidate studying quantum computing in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education.

“The mentorship that I received from the Anderson Center put me in a great position starting the competition. I had been working hard on the business model,” said Grant. “When I first started Quantum Lock, I was challenged to explain my ideas. The Anderson Center helped me distill my message into something meaningful.”

During the competition, Grant was matched with a team of mentors, including Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, co-founders of Mobius, a former Boyd Venture Challenge and Vol Court winner.

“The Quantum Lock team made meaningful strides forward over the weekend in terms of business model, design, marketing, and more,” said Grant.

Grant says she plans to use the money to add features to the Quantum Lock smartphone application and take the company to the DEF CON Hacking Conference in Las Vegas in August.

Qardian Labs

Tomov, a dual-enrollment sophomore from Knoxville who is majoring in business analytics, said she plans to use her win to further develop the medical software she designed.

Sofia Tomov
Sofia Tomov

Qardian Lab’s software package, HEARO (Heart Evaluation for Algorithmic Risk-Reduction and Optimization), is designed to make more informed diagnoses in less time.

“This award helps bring me one step closer to launching my software product for making fast and accurate cardiac risk assessments,” said Tomov.

Qardian Labs previously won the $15,000 top prize in the fall Boyd Venture Challenge, and Tomov continues to work with the Anderson Center as she develops her company.

“The mentorship and resources from the Anderson Center have helped me tremendously, from mapping out my business model to practicing pitches,” said Tomov. “My mentors have given me extremely valuable feedback at each stage and helped me define my goals, develop a viable product, and present it in the best possible way.”

UT students with a legally established business can apply to compete in the spring 2019 Boyd Venture Challenge. The seed-fund grant awards up to $20,000 to student companies each fall and spring semester. Applications are due to the Anderson Center by April 10. Full application instructions and eligibility details are on the Boyd Venture Challenge website.


Carrie McCamey (865-974-9964,

Megan Boehnke (865-974-3242,