June 13, 2012 | last updated June 14, 2012 10:45 am

Robotics Startup Takes Prize At WPI Venture Forum Contest

Venture Forum judges Jerry Bird (left) of Massachusetts Technology Development Corp. and Doug Banks, associate vice president for economic development for the UMass system.

A startup company aiming to commercialize its design for a robotic gripper hand got a boost Tuesday as a panel of judges at Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Venture Forum selected it above nine other pitches from entrepreneurs.

Empire Robotics, started by a team from Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y., received a $2,500 cash prize for winning the sixth annual Five Minute Pitch contest.

Though the money won't bring the product to market, the exposure to investors and others just might. Each contestant also received mentoring on their pitches, honing their chops for the next time they find themselves presenting to potential partners.

Empire thinks its gripper will automate manufacturing to a greater extent because it comes in at a lower price than high-end "human hand" grippers and can pick up a wide variety of objects compared to lower-end grippers.

"This exactly the kind of tech that's missing for bringing more agile manufacturing to the United States, to automate manufacturing lines in the United States, and that's exactly what we intend to do with this patent pending technology," John Amend, the company's chief technology officer told a roomful of businesspeople, investors and others gathered in the school's campus center last night.

The gripper is a ball-shaped elastic membrane filled with granular material attached to a robotic arm. The air pressure inside the ball is manipulated to adjust the softness or hardness of the gripper, allowing it to conform around and squeeze objects.

To view the technology in action, click here.

Though the robotics startup was not from the area, some of the pitches were from local entrepreneurs. Cooper Hart, a recent Clark University graduate, pitched a safety siren he and his partners designed. The device looks like an electronic car key, and emits a loud noise when pressed, also alerting police to the location of the person who pressed it.

Safe Siren won the audience choice prize.

Hart said his company needs seed money to build a prototype, but it has talked to Clark about doing a pilot program of the device there once it is built. Hart said he would give the devices to schools for free, but charge $10 a month per student. That amount still comes in lower than what an average school spends per student on student safety, he said.

Other pitches included a product that better sterilizes catheters, a Bluetooth-enabled alternative to hearing aids, an energy management system for hotels, an electric vehicle carpooling concept, and several medical and biotech inventions.

Competitors were judged by a panel of technology transfer, venture and patent experts. They included Jerry Bird of the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., a venture firm that has backed area companies such as uTest, Courion, TerraTherm and ThermoEnergy Corp.; Doug Bank, associate vice president for economic development for the UMass five-college system; Todd Keiller, director of technology transfer for WPI; Gesmer Updegrove attorney Peter Moldave and Wolf Greenfield partner Douglas Wolf.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Cornell University. It is in Ithaca, N.Y.

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