Oso CEO wins one of three Lemelson prizes
URBANA — Oso Technologies is collecting oh, so many prizes.
On Monday, its CEO and co-founder, Eduardo Torrealba, won the $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize for innovation.
Four days earlier, the company — which developed a soil-moisture monitoring system that alerts users when their plants need to be watered — won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County's annual Innovation Celebration.
Torrealba, 25, of Arlington, Texas, said he plans to take off a year after he completes his master's degree this spring to devote full-time to the company.
Oso is talking with manufacturers now and hopes to release its first product, PlantLink, mid-summer, he said.
Winning $10,000 Illinois Innovation Prizes on Monday were Rajinder Sodhi and Brett Jones, both doctoral candidates in computer science at the University of Illinois.
Both worked on innovations that extend or amplify virtual experiences.
Sodhi's invention, AIREAL, allows users to feel physical forces in the air — so viewers of movies and video games can feel, as well as see, special effects.
The technology also enables visually impaired people — and others — to feel virtual textures such as sand, water and grass.
Sodhi worked on the technology as a research associate with Walt Disney Imagineering, and the company is expected to use it in theme park attractions.
Jones' technology, IllumiRoom — which he worked on as an intern at Microsoft Research — extends visualizations beyond the TV screen to surfaces surrounding the screen for a radically immersive viewing experience.
The technology has applications in video games, theater, advertising, in-home computing and hands-on education.
IllumiRoom was featured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, said Andrew Singer, director of the UI's Technology Entrepreneur Center.
Sodhi, 27, grew up in Reno, Nev, while Jones, 26, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Homewood. Both work in the fields of computer vision and human-computer interaction.
Oso's Torrealba is completing his master's degree in mechanical science and engineering.
Torrealba said he came up with the idea for PlantLink in August 2011, and his team made a presentation to potential investors three months later.
In January, the company raised $96,000 through the Kickstarter "crowd-funding" mechanism on top of seed funding it already had.
PlantLink can notify people by email or text when plants need watered. If the plants are outside, the system's smart-valve option can turn on water when needed.
Torrealba said the system is "making gardening easier than ever before."
He said a starter set — including three sensors and a base station — is expected to sell for $100. The smart valve is expected to sell for $50 and additional sensors for $25.
Oso has fielded inquiries from Brazil and Israel about how the system might aid in watering crops there, he added.
Altogether, 68 UI students applied for this year's Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize. A panel of alumni and faculty whittled them to eight finalists.
Originally, $5,000 was to be awarded to the first runner-up and $2,500 to the second runner-up. But judges were so impressed by the finalists that they intead established two $10,000 Illinois Innovation Prizes, with the additional money supplied by the College of Engineering.
The Lemelson-Illinois Prize, administered by the Technology Entrepreneur Center, is funded through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program. That program was founded by inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy.