Alum Helps Initiative Teach Students Skills to Launch Business, Community Ventures

UMass Lowell alumnus Brian Rist
UMass Lowell's DifferenceMaker Program is expanding with the addition of the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, named for alumnus Brian Rist, left, shown with Chancellor Jacquie Moloney at an event last year.


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LOWELL, Mass. – UMass Lowell announced today that it is expanding its student entrepreneurship program to honor one of its most successful graduates. 

UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Program, which teaches students in all courses of study skills they can use to launch businesses and nonprofits, is expanding to include the new Rist DifferenceMaker Institute. 

The institute – which includes new student co-ops and a fellowship, support for student teams in the program and the naming of an award in the annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge – recognizes alumnus Brian Rist. Rist is a 1977 graduate of UMass Lowell and Stoughton native who founded and grew Florida-based Storm Smart Industries into the largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane-protection products in the U.S. He and his wife, Kim, pledged $5 million to the university earlier this year to support initiatives including DifferenceMaker.

The new institute was announced at the 2019 $50K Idea Challenge today, where 10 teams competed in the finals for seed money and other support to make their business ideas become a reality. Teams of students from all majors participate in the contest through which they devise new products, services and technologies to help solve problems in business and the community, then pitch their ideas before expert judges.

Since the program’s launch, UMass Lowell students have formed 33 companies, filed for eight patents and raised $2.5 million in funding. Successful venture include Nonspec, which builds prosthetics for people in developing countries; TopaCan, which created a portable device that turns beverage cans into environmentally friendly receptacles for cigarette butts; and invisaWear, which invented a personal safety alert device that looks like jewelry. 

“This competition illustrates like no other how a UMass Lowell education can be put to work to benefit others,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told the student teams. “As finalists, you have been selected from a pool of 54 original applicants, representing more than 30 academic departments across all six UMass Lowell schools and colleges. Your achievements demonstrate the university’s commitment to making the world a better place.”

Rist’s commitment to DifferenceMaker began in 2014, when he served as a judge in a preliminary round of the annual Idea Challenge and in 2016, he helped determine the winners in the final round.

“These groups of students are so intensely, incredibly passionate about trying to solve real-world problems: poverty, hunger, polluted drinking water. That was just really inspiring to me,” said Rist, who designated a portion of the $5 million gift to the university’s “Our Legacy, Our Place” campaign to go to the program that now bears his name. “That sort of innovation, of dedication, just needs to be supported.”

“The Rist family donation is a significant step forward in the development and growth of the DifferenceMaker program,” said Steven Tello, UMass Lowell vice provost for innovation and workforce development. “Through the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, we will increase the participation and recognition of UMass Lowell student innovation and creativity across the Northeast and the country. We are very grateful to Brian and Kim Rist for this generous contribution and for their past support of the program.”

Both Brian and Kim Rist will be honored for their support for UMass Lowell at Commencement on Saturday, May 18 and on Friday, May 17, the new institute will be celebrated at DifferenceMaker Central, the program’s home base.

The Idea Challenge, now in its seventh year, is presented by UMass Lowell’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Finalists include a team from Middlesex Community College, which established its own DifferenceMaker program with UMass Lowell’s help. 

Ideas pitched by the finalists were:

  • Benji Ball – a baseball and bat designed to help children with disabilities learn the game;
  • ECG for Me – a patch worn on the skin that syncs with smartphones to display an electrocardiogram that can detect underlying heart conditions; 
  • EV Smart – a mobile app that connects owners of electric vehicles to each other to share information on charging vehicles and road assistance; 
  • Jamfuze – an online platform that brings together musicians in search of resources to advance their careers;
  • OTDSEES (Over Terrain Tactical Scuba Personnel Delivery Device) – equipment that helps scuba divers, particularly divers with disabilities, transport their gear and themselves over rough terrain to get to the water; 
  • Projected PIN/ATM Fast App – a mobile app that improves speed and helps prevent identity theft when withdrawing money at ATMs; 
  • RE-VIVE – a wearable, auto-injection system that delivers naloxone to counteract an opioid overdose; 
  • The CAT Mat – a mat for physical therapy patients that simulates walking outdoors;
  • USe Cart – a technology-connected shopping cart that includes an electronic list of the items inside and streamlines checkout time;
  • VotED – a mobile app that educates users about ballot initiatives, candidates for office and elections important to their communities. (Idea presented by the MCC team.)   

Students participating in the contest are from Andover, Beverly, Brockton, Cohasset, Dennis, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Medford, Melrose, Saugus, South Hadley, Stow and Winthrop, along with Londonderry and Nashua, N.H., Raleigh, N.C., and Tolland, Conn.

In addition to Rist, other UMass Lowell alumni and members of the university community served as judges for the finals. They include James Barry ’88, president and CEO, InspireMD Inc.; Lorna Boucher ’86, chief marketing officer, Instinet; Mary Burns ’84, principal, Splash Media Group Boston LLC and UMass trustee; James Regan ’88, president and CEO, Digital Federal Credit Union; Mark Saab ’81, ’13 (H), founding trustee, Saab Family Foundation; and Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system and UMass Lowell distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation. 

UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 18,000 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 leaders in their communities and around the globe.