Cozad winners hit right note with judges

Cozad winners hit right note with judges

URBANA — The judges took longer than expected to determine the winners of this year's Cozad New Venture Competition.

To help fill the time, one of the finalists, Sam Walder, played his violin.

Once the judges returned, Walder's project was named one of two first-place winners, receiving a $15,000 prize for his app, Trala, that helps students learn to play the violin.

"It's good," Walder said about winning the prize.

Trala helps students learn by pointing out mistakes as they play.

"It listens to you play your real instrument and tells you exactly what mistakes you're making, as you're making them," Walder said during his presentation. "And then it sends all this information to your teacher, so they know when you entered a lesson what's going on."

Trala was one of six finalists that presented publicly Wednesday afternoon in front of the judges, and it was one of 125 teams that participated in the University of Illinois' 17th annual Cozad New Venture Competition, which began in February and is named for local entrepreneur V. Dale Cozad.

Walder, a senior in computer engineering, said the next step is to expand Trala to more instruments.

"Right now, I have it for string instruments," he said. "I want to expand it very shortly to all orchestral musicians."

Trala is already on both the iOS and Android app stores, and Walder hopes to reach 20,000 users.

To test the app's viability, Walder advertised it last week in the iOS App Store.

"I threw $100 of ads on the App Store, and we got 500 paid subscriptions. Each of these is $10 a month," he said. "This is a ravenous market."

The other first-place winner was Autonomic Energy Systems, which is trying to prevent lithium-ion batteries from catching fire, a problem that caught the public's eye last year when Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 was recalled for battery problems.

"This is a problem across industries, from consumer electronics to electronic vehicles to industrial equipment," said cofounder Tony Griffin, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in materials engineering.

To solve this, AES has created two types of microcapsules that would be put inside the battery when it is manufactured. One helps prevent battery fires from starting, and the other helps put fires out if they start.

"Our microcapsules will melt and shut the battery down when they get too hot, or release a flame retardant when the battery starts to set on fire," Griffin said.

In their tests, the microcapsules, which are about the size of a red blood cell, don't affect battery performance, but they want to conduct rigorous tests.

"We need to put this technology through a number of rigorous tests to prove that it not only works under many conditions, but that it doesn't affect any other parts of the battery," Griffin said. "Whenever you change a battery technology, you have to retest everything."

AES is also going to talk to more potential customers, Griffin said, to better understand their needs.

But he's still processing AES' first-place showing, which also includes a prize of $15,000.

"Am I dreaming? What's going on right now?" he said.