Latest round of “Shark Tank” style competition funds both faculty and student research.

In only three short years, the Palouse Club’s Cougar Cage has earned significant buzz for its entrepreneurial spin on traditional philanthropy.

Modeled after the popular TV show Shark Tank, Cougar Cage brings together the Palouse Club — a group of generous Puget Sound area Cougs — to consider projects from WSU faculty and students looking for philanthropic investments. Those selected by the Palouse Club receive both funding and mentorship, along with industry networking opportunities. 

Since its launch in the spring of 2021, this competitive platform has helped catapult more than a dozen WSU-led projects from ideation to implementation, awarding a total of nearly $750,000 over three years to support a range of programs and initiatives across the university.  

The most recent Cougar Cage took place on Friday, September 8. Of the six finalists, the Palouse Club selected three for investment.  

“The implications of this support are far-reaching,” said President Kirk Schulz. “The Palouse Club’s generosity will go a long way in ensuring that WSU researchers, students, and programs are poised for continued success as they move forward with their innovative projects and proposals.” 

The latest round of winners

Marwa Aly and Devon McCornack, both PhD candidates in the Voiland College of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, received $100,000 for their proposal to tackle the rising threat of antibiotic resistance “superbugs.” Aly and McCornack plan to leverage exosomes, a kind of novel biomolecule, to combat multi-drug resistant pathogens without the use of antibiotics. Antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bacteria and fungi arise from the overuse or misuse of antibiotics and are considered a global crisis. The Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) reported 1.3 million deaths directly attributable to AMR pathogens in 2019, a number expected to climb as high as 10 million by 2050 without action of the kind Aly and McCornack propose.  

Konstantin Matveev received $50,000 to support his proposal to design a thermoacoustic cooler for hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen has long-held promise as a clean alternative to fossil fuels; however, challenges in production, storage, and transport currently limit its application. Matveev, a professor in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, hopes to change that by developing a new cryogenic cooling system to prevent hydrogen boil-off loss and reduce the cost of liquefaction. If successful, Matveev’s thermoacoustic cooler could allow hydrogen to take its place as an important green fuel in the fight against climate change.  

Carlos Venegas and Charles Ludwig (pictured above), two WSU undergraduates and members of Palouse Aerospace—the university’s Rocketry and Aviation engineering club—were awarded $10,000 for their proposal to develop hybrid rocket engines. Venegas and Ludwig plan to develop hybrid rocket engines with a solid fuel and liquid oxidizer configuration. This out-of-this-world undergraduate initiative promises to make Washington State University a leading light in collegiate rocketry.  

“When you see results like these, it’s no mystery why Cougar Cage captures such excitement and enthusiasm across the university,” said Mike Connell, vice president of WSU Advancement and CEO of the WSU Foundation. “It’s more than an incredible opportunity for researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs — it’s a powerful example of what can happen when a small group of generous Cougs come together to make a difference. WSU is fortunate to have friends like the Palouse Club to make it possible.” 



In addition to considering new pitches at the September meeting, Palouse Club members also received updates on some of the projects funded in 2021: 

Project: Many Drugs Cause Hearing Loss: Machine Learning May Help (funded 2021, $50,000)  
Faculty: Allison Coffin, Associate Professor, Neuroscience 

Thanks to Cougar Cage funding, Allison Coffin and her team of WSU researchers are using machine learning to develop a tool to predict which drugs may cause hearing loss. Working with Rewire Inc, a spin-out company from WSU, Coffin’s group has tested four models and found that principal component analysis is the most accurate at predicting ototoxicity. The team plans to continue refining their model and testing it on animals like larval zebrafish, which have hearing cells similar to those found in humans.  

Leveraging the Secrets of Hibernation in Bears for Human Health (funded 2021,
Faculty: Joanna Kelley, Associate Professor, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department (UC-Santa Cruz), former Associate Professor, WSU College of Arts and Sciences, School of Biological Sciences 

At the Washington State University’s one-of-a-kind Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center, scientists are unlocking the secrets of hibernation to find new ways to help people with health issues. Researchers from the School of Biological Sciences are examining the genes and molecules in different parts of hibernating bears’ bodies and exploring how specific proteins react to treatments. The team has two papers under publication consideration and has requested funding from the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences to keep the momentum going.  

Project: Individualized Medicine: Going to the Dogs? (and now Cats!) (Funded 2021, $45,000)
Faculty: Katrina Mealey, Regents Professor and Richard L. Ott Endowed Chair in Small Animal Medicine and Research in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine 

Katrina Mealey’s team has successfully created a flow cytometry-based process for veterinary pharmaceutical companies to screen drugs for dog and cat safety. This breakthrough was only possible because of a $50,000 gift from the Palouse Club allowing for the purchase of critical equipment.  

Project: 3D Printed Patient-Specific Cardiac Models with Pulsating, Circulatory, and Pressure Sensing Functions for Advanced Surgical Applications) (Funded 2021, $50,000)
Faculty: Kaiyan Qiu, Berry Assistant Professor, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering 

Kaiyan Qiu’s team in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering has successfully used CT images to generate patient-specific 3D-printed heart models. This transformative resource will allow surgeons to practice complex cardiac surgeries with models nearly identical to the actual patient’s heart. The next step is to secure additional funding from the National Institutes of Health to integrate mechanical properties into the models, creating a comprehensive reproduction for advanced procedures.

Project: The
CentriFLEX Bioreactor (Funded 2021, $50,000) 

Faculty: Bernard Van Wie, Professor, Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Brenden Fraser-Hevlin, Graduate Student, Chemical Engineering, & Kitana Kaiphanliam, Co-Founder & CEO, Ananta Tech Ananta Technologies 

This WSU research team has developed the CentriFLEX—a novel centrifugal bioreactor capable of growing twice as many cancer-fighting T cells in half the time as comparable devices. In 2021, the team formed the startup company Ananta Technologies, with the ultimate goal of creating bioreactor systems for cell-based therapies. 

Project: Design for Impact Program (Funded 2021, $5,000)

Faculty: Kim Christen, Professor, Digital Technology and Culture and Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation 

The Design for Impact Internship project brings Pullman faculty and students together with external stakeholders to help translate Cougar ideas into marketable products. Funding from the Palouse Club created two internships for DTC students, pairing them with regional businesses to assist in creating multimedia, video, animation, and web design for clients. 

Project: WSU Autonomous
Microrobotic Systems Laboratory (Funded 2021, $50,000) 

Faculty: Nestor Perez-Arancibia, Flaherty Associate Professor, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering 

In WSU’s Autonomous Microrobotic Systems Laboratory, researchers are designing tiny robotic wonders with applications ranging from healthcare to environmental monitoring. Cougar Cage funding has made possible undergraduate research, the recruitment of top graduate students, and the invention of the world’s smallest shape memory alloy (SMA)-based actuator. Early successes include the creation of two microrobots, the MiniBug and Water Strider. The WSU team plans to expand on these successes by establishing a microrobotics company to address agricultural and medical challenges. 

The next Cougar Cage is scheduled for fall 2024.