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From Idea to Impact: Meet the Recipients of the Inaugural Chancellor’s Innovation Awards

Chancellor Khosla at podium as Allison Cusick stands next to him
Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla (left) prepares to present the first ever UC San Diego Student/Alumni Innovator of the Year award to Allison Cusick (right), a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and founder of FjordPhyto, which launched in 2016 on tourism expedition vessels in Antarctica. (Photos by Erik Jepsen/University Communications)

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They’re saving lives—and saving the planet. The forward-thinking innovators behind Vektor Medical, an AI-based cardiac localization and analysis technology, and FjordPhyto, a unique participatory science platform that intertwines climate science and tourism, took home the top prizes during the University of California San Diego’s inaugural Chancellor’s Innovation Awards celebration.

Held Feb. 29 at UC San Diego’s Design and Innovation Building—a campus hub for interdisciplinary innovation and growth—the event served to highlight the diverse spectrum of innovation that thrives at the university and recognize individuals who are driving positive societal change through groundbreaking discovery.

The Chancellor’s Innovation Awards, which opened for nominations last September, were created to recognize standouts in two distinguished categories, each with a cash prize: Faculty Startup of the Year and Student/Alumni Innovator of the Year.

This year’s winners represent just two of the more than 1,000 startups that have launched out of UC San Diego since the university’s founding in 1960. In the last three fiscal years alone, 49 startups have been licensed from university technologies, and more than $391 million in funding has been acquired by UC San Diego startups through venture capital investment, private equity, mergers and acquisitions since 2020.

“Innovation is not just something we do here at UC San Diego—it is who we are,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla to event attendees. “Innovation is our state of being and our ethos. Innovation is central to our mission to transform California into a diverse global society by educating, generating and disseminating knowledge and creative works, providing high-quality health care and engaging in public service."

Before announcing this year’s winners, who were chosen from among three finalists in each category by a panel of award reviewers, Khosla thanked the generous donors and supporters who made the Innovation Awards a reality. He then introduced founding donor Drew Senyei, MD, trustee of the UC San Diego Foundation, who conceived the idea of the awards. With the help of fellow members of UC San Diego’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council, Senyei worked tirelessly to bring the idea to life.

This program was established to recognize and celebrate the uniquely Triton culture of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit that have become defining hallmarks of UC San Diego,” said Senyei. “We recognize the entrepreneurial successes of UC San Diego's faculty as well as the potential inspired by the next generation of innovators in our community: the students and alumni.”

Revolutionizing cardiac arrhythmia care

UC San Diego’s first-ever Faculty Startup of the Year award was presented to Vektor Medical founders Andrew McCulloch, a distinguished professor of bioengineering and Shu Chien Chancellor’s Endowed Chair in Engineering and Medicine, and David Krummen, a professor of medicine at UC San Diego and cardiac electrophysiologist at UC San Diego Health and VA San Diego Healthcare System.  

David Krummen walks to stage to accept award as audience looks on
Cardiac electrophysiologist David Krummen, who co-founded Vektor Medical alongside UC San Diego bioengineering professor Andrew McCulloch, walks to the stage to accept the Faculty Startup of the Year award.

With the potential to revolutionize outcomes for patients with cardiac arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, and streamline ablation procedures, Vektor Medical’s innovative AI-based localization and analysis technology, vMap, uses computational modeling and proprietary algorithms to identify arrhythmia source locations non-invasively.

The FDA-cleared solution, which currently is in use at 10 hospitals across the U.S., relies solely on 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) data to determine each individual patient’s arrhythmia source location and help inform targeted therapy for that patient.

Its ongoing commercial rollout signifies vMap’s potential to elevate the standard of care for millions of cardiac arrhythmia patients, making a substantial impact in the field. Krummen and McCulloch hope that their work will allow more patients to get early, effective treatment and will make lifesaving ablation procedures safer and more successful. This recognition from UC San Diego, they believe, may help accelerate and enhance their ability to continue to bring this technology to the market.

“This award is incredibly meaningful for us,” said Krummen. “The culture of innovation and collaboration at UC San Diego—which brought together engineers and clinicians in a cutting-edge environment—is what allowed the idea behind Vektor Medical to become successful. I hope that our story can inspire other innovations at UC San Diego that address other important problems."

Discover Startup of the Year Vektor Medical as co-founder David Krummen asks, "What if we could use a novel form of artificial intelligence to reduce the global burden of heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes?"
Three-image collage of awards audience; winners with Chancellor Khosla and Drew Senyei; and exterior DIB reception mingling
The inaugural Chancellor's Innovation Awards drew members of UC San Diego's innovation ecosystem to the Design and Innovation Building, with a reception following the awards presentation. In the center photo, from the left, Drew Senyei, Allison Cusick, David Krummen and Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla celebrate the success of FjordPhyto and Vektor Medical.

Transforming tourism into an engine of scientific discovery

Allison Cusick, a Ph.D. candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, received the Student/Alumni Innovator of the Year award for her work to evolve the idea of citizen science through her startup FjordPhyto, which launched in 2016 on tourism expedition vessels in Antarctica. The southernmost continent, which is undergoing rapid climate change, also grapples with a significant tourist-scientist imbalance.

To help rectify this imbalance, the NASA-funded project actively involves tourists in collecting measurements and physical samples during the Antarctic tourism season. This not only provides an engaging learning platform for the tourists, but also contributes to key advancements that enhance the scientific community’s understanding of the impact of melting glaciers on phytoplankton communities.

Through FjordPhyto, Cusick and other Scripps scientists, in collaboration with scientists from Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de La Plata, rely on close relationships with Antarctic tour operators and polar expedition guides to facilitate tourist involvement. Receiving this award, said Cusick, will further FjordPhyto’s ability to collect vital data from an often-inhospitable environment.

“I am deeply grateful and proud to receive the Chancellor's Student Innovator of the Year award,” said Cusick. “It's a testament to the work that comes from collaborative efforts and dedication of our team, pioneering new ways to work in challenging, data-limited environments. UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography are globally recognized for high-quality research. The vibrant interdisciplinary atmosphere on campus empowers us to push boundaries and innovate. This award and recognition will allow us to grow sustainably, continuing to lead in impactful scientific discoveries while fostering social engagement and ocean literacy.”

Discover Student/Alumni Innovation of the Year Allison Cusick, Founder of FjordPhyto, as she asks, "What if we could transform tourism into an engine of scientific discovery?"
Allison Cusick smiles in reaction to award announcement
Allison Cusick (center) reacts to being named UC San Diego's first Student/Alumni Innovator of the Year.

Fostering a culture of innovation

UC San Diego’s diverse entrepreneurial campus culture was on full display during the inaugural Chancellor’s Innovation Awards event, highlighting the boundless curiosity and transformative influence for which the university is known worldwide. This year’s six remarkable finalists all are translating groundbreaking ideas into impact, working to improve lives and addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet.

The event motivated and encouraged attendees, many of whom are involved in the university’s innovation ecosystem, and served as a reminder of the valuable contributions that UC San Diego brings to the local region and beyond.

“Since its founding, UC San Diego has recruited preeminent faculty who lead the way in forging fundamental advances across science and engineering,” said SK Sharma, Chief AI Officer at Universal Music Group and Entrepreneur-in-Residence with UC San Diego’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization. “This culture of pioneering innovation remains stronger than ever and was well represented at this year’s Chancellor’s Innovation Awards Ceremony. After hearing from our finalists, I couldn’t be more confident about the outlook for San Diego’s innovation-based economy, and the critical role that UC San Diego’s exceptional faculty continue to play in building that ecosystem.”

A leader among top universities in startup creation, UC San Diego embraces an inclusive culture of exploration and experimentation through a substantial number of programs, resources and campus spaces that encourage risk-taking and interdisciplinary collaboration. These efforts include entities like the Office of Innovation and Commercialization, which aligns resources available to innovators through the university, and the state-of-the-art Design and Innovation Building—home of spaces such as The Basement, a student-focused incubator and The Design Lab, aimed at addressing complex problems facing society.

"After hearing from our finalists, I couldn’t be more confident about the outlook for San Diego’s innovation-based economy, and the critical role that UC San Diego’s exceptional faculty continue to play in building that ecosystem."
SK Sharma, Entrepreneur-in-Residence

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