Yanshuo Zhang (left) and Erik Lee won the $15,000 grand prize at Missouri S&T's pitch competition for the EQ Student Accelerator. | Courtesy of Missouri S&T

Get to know the founders of three prize-winning Missouri S&T startups



Twelve student startups from across Missouri are converging in Columbia on Friday to pitch their businesses and compete for a share of $30,000 in cash prizes.

They are part of the inaugural Entrepreneurship Quest Student Accelerator, a program launched in late 2018 by the University of Missouri System to encourage entrepreneurship among students.


Read more: Meet the other student entrepreneurs of the EQ Student Accelerator


All 12 startups finished in the top three of pitch contests held last month at the UM System’s four campuses, where winners also earned a share of $30,000.

Missouri Business Alert got some face time with the student founders to learn more about their businesses and backstories. Here’s a look at the three winning startups from the Missouri University of Science and Technology:

Yanshuo Zhang, Safehouse


Sophomores Yanshuo Zhang, 20, and Erik Lee, 19, both of Chesterfield, want to help refugees. Their startup, Safehouse, would provide shelters to those who are displaced.

Zhang, who’s studying mechanical engineering, said he took a class in high school with people from around the world, including some people from Syria who were previously refugees before coming to the U.S. Their stories inspired him to create his service with Lee, who’s studying computer science.

“There are 26 million refugees in the world,” Lee said, “and we want to give shelters to the 10 percent that don’t have shelters.”


Yasser Darwish, CrunchPillow

Yasser Darwish, a student pursuing his Ph.D in civil engineering, is working with Mohamed ElGawady, an engineering professor, to develop CrunchPillow. Their idea is a panel that would attach to the front of vehicles to offer protection in case of a crash.

They hope to reach the point where their product can be installed on any car around the world. They also hope to tap into the rental car market.

“I used to damage my car all of the time,” said Darwish, 29, who’s from Egypt. “My bumper’s been damaged three or four times. I had this problem, and we had the idea to start our own company company, develop the product ourselves and get it into the market and see how it can go.”


Vanessa Mahan: Bionic Bowel

What started as a class project for junior Vanessa Mahan and senior Catherine Pollman turned into a third-place project in the EQ pitch competition at Missouri S&T.

Their startup, called Bionic Bowel, is developing a pill designed to help repair internal damage suffered by people who have Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease

“(Our product) would allow you to eat normally and go to work and heal your pain and inflammation,” Mahan said.

Mahan, 20, and Pollman, 21, are both biological sciences majors. Mahan is originally from Kansas City, and Pollman is from Waynesville.

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