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UC Davis business competition awards $20,000 to COPD tech innovator, insect agriculturalists

Maria Artunduaga, founder and CEO of Respira Labs, won $20,000 in UC Davis’ Big Bang! Business Competition for her wearable COPD-treatment device.
Maria Artunduaga, founder and CEO of Respira Labs, won $20,000 in UC Davis’ Big Bang! Business Competition for her wearable COPD-treatment device. UC Davis

A Mountain View-based health technology company won first place and $20,000 in a UC Davis entrepreneurship competition Thursday evening for its innovations in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Respira Labs, founded in 2018, won the top prize in the university’s 19th annual Big Bang! Business Competition out of a field of 105 businesses for developing a wearable device meant to predict and prevent COPD attacks using artificial intelligence and other data.

“It flags lung function changes to patients, health care providers and caregivers,” Founder and CEO Maria Artunduaga said. “Patients will be able to act earlier at home, preventing unnecessary ER and hospital visits while preserving lung function and saving lives.”

Artunduaga lost her grandmother to COPD in 2013, and after leaving her career as a surgeon and pursuing a graduate degree in medicine, she began working on technology that measured trapped air in the lungs.

The National Institutes of Health says about 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with the incurable lung disease — though more are undiagnosed — and it is the fourth-leading cause of death in the country.

Artunduaga said during her presentation that three hospital networks had already signed on with Respira for a pilot program.

After going through several rounds of judges, Artunduaga made her final pitch alongside four other finalists, including BioMilitus, a Davis-based company that won several prizes totaling $22,000 for converting agricultural waste products into feed for insects, which are in turn used as feed for livestock.

BioMilitus, run by four UC Davis graduate students and a university researcher, specializes in breeding black soldier fly larvae for use in poultry farming and aquaculture.

“We believe strongly in the sustainability and purpose of our company,” co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Lydia Palma said. “We are a collaborative group with a unique combination of skills and expertise that covers all areas of insect farming. We want to use our knowledge to help create a circular economy.”

The company will be using the prize money to purchase equipment and secure a location for its pilot program.

The Big Bang! Business Competition is designed to help entrepreneurs and startups grow and is open to the public. The competition awarded a total of $110,850 in prize money to contestants.

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