By Ed Brennen
Rajia Abdelaziz ’16 remembers shaking as she nervously took the University Crossing stage to pitch her team’s wearable personal safety device to judges at the 2016 DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.
Five years later, Abdelaziz was filled with gratitude as she took the stage for the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute
’s 10th anniversary celebration at Moloney Hall.
“I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for DifferenceMaker,” said Abdelaziz, whose collaboration with electrical engineering alumni Ray Hamilton ’17 has turned into one of DifferenceMaker’s biggest success stories: invisaWear
, a smart jewelry and accessory company that eclipsed $1 million in sales in its first year on the market and recently partnered
with home security leader ADT.
Dozens of DifferenceMaker alumni from the past decade recently joined judges, mentors and sponsors to celebrate the success of the campus-wide program, which engages students in creative problem solving, innovation and entrepreneurship and culminates in team pitch competitions.
“Real-world experience solving real-world problems — that’s what our faculty and students do, and that’s why DifferenceMaker was a no-brainer for us,” said Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who, as executive vice chancellor in 2011 worked with Steven Tello, now vice provost for graduate and professional studies, to build the program.
“We said from the beginning, DifferenceMaker is not a business plan competition,” Tello said. “We want to raise awareness, seed ideas, move people forward, help them develop skills and help them launch businesses. And that we’ve done.”
So far, 40 companies have been formed from DifferenceMaker student ventures, attracting $5 million in funding and generating over $4 million in revenue.
One of the first was Nonspec
, a company that makes affordable and adjustable prosthetic limb kits. It won the first Campus Wide DifferenceMaker contest — and a $5,000 top prize — in 2013.
They’ve raised over $2.5 million and provided customizable prosthetic limbs to thousands of patients in India, Rwanda and Laos. De Alderete said they’ll be releasing their first products in the U.S. in the next six months.
“That support structure of DifferenceMaker is huge when building your company,” he said.
Tyler Cote ’18, co-founder and director of Operation250
, a nonprofit that educates children, parents and teachers about online safety, agreed.
While the $6,000 prize for winning the 2017 Campus Wide DifferenceMaker contest was “great,” Cote said the program’s business lessons along the way were a “game-changer” for someone who double-majored in political science and criminal justice.
“We came into DifferenceMaker with a class project mentality; we left with a business mentality,” said Cote, whose organization has already reached over 2,000 people in Massachusetts.
While 136 DifferenceMaker teams have won more than $525,000 in prize money over the past decade — either in first-round, college-based competitions or in the year-ending $50K Idea Challenge — even those that don’t take home a top prize have gone on to success.
, a mat system that simulates walking outdoors for physical therapy patients, received an honorable mention at the 2019 Idea Challenge. With support and encouragement from DifferenceMaker Director Holly Lalos
, company co-founders Michelle Mailloux ’17, ’20 and Katie Muise ’17, ’20 have gone on to win several other startup competitions, including the Beantown Throwdown, where they beat out teams from Harvard and host MIT.
“DifferenceMaker has empowered us by providing an opportunity to engage our clinical mindset in a business setting,” Muise said. “We are so excited to continue to grow with them.”
Manning School of Business alumnus Brian Rist ’77 first became involved with DifferenceMaker as a volunteer judge seven years ago. He and his wife, Kim, made a $5 million gift to UML in 2019, when the program was renamed the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute.
“When I look back at not just the winners, but all the participants we’ve met over the years, I feel truly blessed to have witnessed so many noble and worthy participants,” said Rist, founder of Florida-based Storm Smart, the country’s largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane protection systems. Rist sold the company last year and created the Rist Family Foundation to focus on charitable endeavors.
“Of all the wonderful and worthy causes that we support, this is truly the one that’s nearest and dearest in our hearts and thoughts,” Rist told the audience.
Abdelaziz, who double-majored in electrical engineering and computer science, recalled turning down a job at Google so she and Hamilton could focus on invisaWear, which received $4,500 for winning the Idea Challenge’s Innovative Technology Solution category in 2016.
“That initial money allowed us to build prototypes that we then took to investors to raise additional funding,” said Abdelaziz, who thanked Lalos for connecting her team with the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation for their first loan.
Abdelaziz hinted that more big news was coming soon for invisaWear.
“I can’t wait to tell you guys more about that at our next celebration,” she said.