Ten Teams Pitch to Share in $50K Purse

TrueFIT team member Siddhant Iyer Explains the project to a panel of eight alumni judges during the ninth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge
TrueFIT team member Siddhant Iyer Explains the project to a panel of eight alumni judges during the ninth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

By David Perry

TrueFIT, a timely solution that detects and seals leaks in ill-fitting face masks, took home $7,000 and top Campuswide DifferenceMaker honors at the ninth annual DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge.

One of 10 teams of finalists culled from a field of 50, TrueFIT impressed the eight alumni judges. Presenters noted that COVID-19 was the spark for an idea that will focus on protecting those in construction work, medicine, mining and other industries long after the pandemic has subsided.

Overall, $50,000 was awarded to the 10 finalist teams.

The evening highlighted the “depth, ingenuity and talent of the students at UML,” said Brian Rist ’77, a judge and the namesake of the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute. TrueFIT’s concept and product are “not only timely and marketable, but much needed,” he said. Rist noted many promising Idea Challenge concepts, but predicts “TrueFIT will clearly be a DifferenceMaker."

TrueFIT is a fail-safe mask-fitting and sealing solution that adheres to any commercially available facial covering. It uses a temperature-sensitive, color-coded dye to indicate the completeness of a mask’s seal. It shows a color change when in contact with the face, and areas not touching the face show no color to indicate lack of a seal.

The TrueFIT team includes master’s plastics engineering student Siddhant Iyer, senior business administration major Justin Marcouillier and Pranav Ramaswamy, a Westford Academy freshman and the son of Prof. Ram Nagarajan of the Plastics Engineering Department.

“Pranav had worked on another project on thermochromic inks in his school,” said Iyer. “That's how TrueFIT came up with the idea to use thermochromics for better fit and seal. … It was basically his idea to use thermochromics for fit and seal.”

“Color-changing materials, also known as thermochromic materials, have always been a fascination of mine,” said Ramaswamy, 14. “One of my first science projects in elementary school was a thermochromic placemat that indicated whether a beverage was too hot for a child to drink.”

During the pandemic, while most people worried about how they’d look on Zoom meetings, Ramaswamy thought about “how I can use thermochromic inks on a mask.” He met Iyer through his parents.

“Siddhant mentored me as we refined the idea, designed and made the prototypes. I learned a lot about skin-safe adhesives and thermochromic inks that change color at body temperature,” he says.

“The winning team came up with an innovative mask device that can be used well after COVID-19 and that will hit a larger target market, including people working in health care and construction workers,” said Holly Lalos, entrepreneurial initiative program director for the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute. “They did great research.”

Iyer says he is “ecstatic” with the win. “There is no better feeling than having a community of people support an idea dedicated to solving a very important problem,” he said

The virtual event, held on Zoom, drew 115 viewers. Asst. Prof. Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, was an affable and good-humored host.

“Could you attach a siren, when it’s worn underneath the chin?” he quipped after TrueFIT’s presentation. “And then could you please sell it to everybody at my gym?”

Over two hours, teams pitched everything from an appealing pill case designed to look like an apple to an affordable device to power and maneuver wheelchairs. Two pitches addressed food insecurity: one for a plant fertilizer production system in Uganda, the other a terrarium for growing food everywhere, even on Mars.

One project addressed a current social concern.

Tommy Vi’s Gelato, a mix of Asian flavors and Italian machinery and technique, aims to unite people around a common love of a delicious treat. Vi, a senior business major with concentrations in accounting and entrepreneurship, said the pandemic-fueled increase in anti-Asian violence has been disturbing. By contrast, “food brings people together,” he said.

He hopes to open a gelato shop where people mix and get to know one another.

“Instead of fighting hate with hate, I decided I wanted to be the change I see in my community,” he said. “Gelato is the vessel to express that culture.”

In addition to Rist, judges for the competition included, Lorna Boucher ’86, Cindy Conte ’87, ’91, Roger Cressey ’87, John Pulichino ’67, ’14 (H), Jim Regan ’88, Mark Saab ’81,’13 (H) and Prof. Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system.

Since 2012, the DifferenceMaker program has reached nearly 60,000 students and awarded $470,000 in prize money. Its teams have raised $5 million and been issued or filed for 10 patents.

For a full list of winners, visit the DifferenceMaker website.