What started out as three UCSB undergraduates’ long-shot attempt at winning $10,000 has, in just a few short years, evolved into a promising young business that could soon have many people breathing easier.

Recent UCSB graduates Byron Myers, Ali Perry and Brenton Taylor founded a business called Inogen in 2001. The trio originally joined forces to come up with an idea for the second annual Business Plan Competition put on by UCSB’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Management. Their proposed invention – a lightweight, portable oxygen concentrator – took first place in the competition, earning the team a $10,000 cash prize and providing the then-undergraduate students with the opportunity to turn their idea into reality.

The team’s business plan not only took first place in the contest, but it also attracted additional attention from the judges. Their encouragement and advice prompted Myers, Perry and Taylor to pursue the development of technology that would make their invention possible. To do this, the team collaborated with a local engineering group called Magnetic Moments, now called LaunchPoint Technologies.

Unlike conventional alternatives currently available, Inogen One is designed to provide a patient with a constant supply of oxygen both in the home and during travel. In the home, a standard AC outlet powers the machine. While a patient is driving, the device can be plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter. The machine’s lithium battery pack provides operation for up to two hours, allowing for mobility and independence from conventional power sources.

“We worked really hard at the technology. That’s where we saw the value of the company was in creating technology that was thought impossible in the marketplace,” Taylor said.

Initially called “Oxygen Solutions,” the company is known today as Inogen, a combination of the words “innovation” and “oxygen.” The group’s product, Inogen One, is an oxygen concentrator that weighs approximately nine pounds and is about the size of a small backpack. The product is currently awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval, which will allow it to be released onto the U.S. market and made available to oxygen-dependent patients.

“We just have to show that our device is equivalent [in function] to another device that’s already on the market, like the standard concentrators,” Myers said of the FDA approval process.

The most common user of concentrated oxygen – and thus the targeted market for Inogen One – is a patient who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, users may also include people who have been diagnosed with some form of emphysema – often as the result of smoking – or bronchitis, severe asthma or Alpha One – a disease that causes lung tissue to degrade – as well as those recovering from cancer.

Their hope, however, is that Inogen One will prove itself not only equivalent, but far superior to its competition as a solution for oxygen-dependent patients.

“Our initial intent was that it would just be a portable solution, but our intent now is that it is the one solution,” Perry said. “The patient does not need to have another standard concentrator [and] does not need to have extra tanks. This is the only thing they’ll need to have in the home.”

The technology that runs Inogen One is essentially the same technology that has allowed oxygen-concentrating machines to function since the early 1950s, but it has been revamped to function on a much smaller scale and with more efficiency than earlier machines.

“The current technology out there was about 55 pounds and about the size of a little mini-fridge,” Taylor said. “So in order to make [a smaller, portable device] feasible, everything had to get quieter, lighter, had to use a lot less power so it could run on battery.”

When air enters the machine, it passes through a series of four filters that remove impurities such as dust, pollen and other particles. Once the air has been filtered, oxygen and nitrogen are separated by pressure swing absorption, a system developed by NASA that produces high-concentration oxygen using a component called a molecular sieve.

The molecular sieve consists of tiny, claylike aluminum silicate pellets that are contained in a pair of cylinders. When air enters into one of the cylinders, the molecular sieve separates out the nitrogen, which is held for a period and then purged back out as more air is taken in and separated through the second cylinder. The two sieve beds work in rhythm with one another: One produces oxygen while the other is being regenerated.

As advanced as the technology may seem, the founders of Inogen said that none of it would have been possible without the right opportunities.

“The Business Plan Competition is what spurred this whole thing, and through that competition we were able to start a company,” Perry said. “We wouldn’t be able to have had the chances to meet the people and work with the people that we have gotten to work with without the Business Plan Competition. If people do have ideas, not only are they getting 10 grand if they win, and a great opportunity to learn how to write a business plan; they’re also getting the chance to actually start something.”