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Entrepreneurship Contest Rewards Best Student Ideas

UMass Lowell DifferenceMakers Pitched New Concepts, Shared in $35K Prize

2016 DifferenceMaker $35K Idea Challenge finals
More than 100 people attended this year's DifferenceMaker $35K Idea Challenge, which honored the best ideas for new products, services and technologies proposed by UMass Lowell students and recent graduates.


Media contacts:  Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or and Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or
LOWELL, Mass. – Dozens of UMass Lowell students and recent graduates eager to make their mark as innovators had a chance to test their mettle before business leaders and the public during the recent finals of the university’s 2016 DifferenceMaker $35K Idea Challenge.

The annual contest asks participants to devise new products, services and technologies to help solve problems in business and the community, then pitch their ideas before expert judges. Winners are awarded seed money raised by alumni to help make competitors’ ideas reality.

A team of UMass Lowell students that designs and makes prosthetic hands took this year’s top prize of $6,000.

Peter Larsen, a senior biology major from Southampton, represented the seven students on team “eNABLE Lowell” for its five-minute pitch to the judges. His talk focused on Ethan, a Florida boy born with without fingers on his right hand, who is using the first of the team’s prosthetic hands. The hand was fabricated at UMass Lowell’s College of Engineering Makerspace on a 3-D printer.

“This is so rewarding,” Larsen said of the DifferenceMaker experience. “We don’t plan to stop. There are a lot more families out there who need our help.”

The team wants to continue its work as a startup chapter of Enabling the Future, a global volunteer organization that makes and offers prosthetic hands to people in need. Judges named the team this year’s overall winner and “Campuswide DifferenceMaker.” The group is the second team of students in the contest’s four-year history to be honored for their work to help people with physical disabilities.

The contest’s top winner in 2013 was Nonspec, a company launched by UMass Lowell students that makes affordable, scalable prosthetic limbs. The students behind the startup have gone on to secure other capital to launch the venture, which is headquartered at UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub business incubator.

Nine other student teams pitched an array of concepts before the judges and a crowd of more than 100 people during this year’s event. Ideas ranged from a mobile app that helps people learn languages to an innovative way to engage hospital patients in activities to counter boredom and help them heal. The competition was presented by UMass Lowell’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Contest participants included UMass Lowell students and recent graduates from Amesbury, Andover, Arlington, Bedford, Billerica, Braintree, Brewster, Brockton, Chelmsford, Dracut, Franklin, Groton, Holden, Leominster, Lowell, Methuen, Pembroke, Roxbury, Saugus, Southampton, Swampscott and West Newbury, along with Coronado, Calif., Newtown, Conn., and Nashua, N.H.

Serving as contest judges were UMass Lowell alumni, members of the university community and Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy. The panel included Richard Miner, co-founder of Android Inc. – the launch pad for the mobile operating system – and general partner at Google Ventures; Mark Saab, chief technical officer at Vention Medical; Brian Rist, president and CEO of Smart Companies; Donald LaTorre, president and CEO of L&G Management Consultants; Lorna Boucher, head of product branding strategy at KCG Holdings Inc.; Joan Marchessault, principal, Strategic Leadership Consulting Group; and Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system and UMass Lowell distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation.

The competition is just one facet of UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Program, which was established in 2012 to teach students the entrepreneurship skills they need to think like innovators and respond to needs in the marketplace and society.

“The DifferenceMaker Program really symbolizes everything great about this university,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told the teams during the competition. “You are taking UMass Lowell to the next level.”

This year’s winners in the contest’s six categories include:

  • Campuswide DifferenceMaker – Team eNABLE Lowell, which seeks to manufacture and provide prosthetic hands to people in need; 
  • Significant Social Impact – Veterans’ Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a web platform to streamline the application process for military veterans seeking disability benefits;
  • First to Market – TopaCan, a portable ashtray that snaps onto the top of beverage cans, making them receptacles for cigarette butts to reduce the amount of cigarettes littering the environment; 
  • Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle – OmniSense, a device for weightlifters that provides users with real-time access to data, including bar path and acceleration; 
  • Best Innovative Technology – Flaire, a wearable device that communicates with a smartphone, allowing the user to send location information and messages for assistance to emergency contacts;
  • Fan Favorite – Expect, a mobile app that allows doctors and EMTs to quickly notify hospitals about the arrival of patients en route to emergency rooms. 

Murphy spoke about the energy and entrepreneurial spirit that surrounds UMass Lowell. In the past two years, he said, three corporations have settled in city, drawing nearly 2,000 workers. “The proximity to UMass Lowell and the talented workforce it introduces each year” is the top reason these corporations have come to Lowell, he said.

UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its 17,500 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers.