DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge Rewards Innovation

The winning eNABLE Lowell team Image by Tory Germann
Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Steve Tello, second from left, poses with the eNABLE Lowell team after its campuswide DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge win.

By David Perry

eNABLE Lowell, a team of students dedicated to supplying low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetic hands for children, landed the campuswide DifferenceMaker award and a cool $6,000 purse at the fourth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

In all, 10 teams split $35,000 in prize money, and one other fan favorite took home $1,000. The event, hosted by the university’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at University Crossing, featured teams of finalists, narrowed down from more than two dozen entrants.

A panel of eight judges — seven alumni joined by Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy — heard from teams making five-minute presentations. The pitches ranged from an emergency alert technology, to a top that slides onto standard empty beverage cans converting them to an ashtray and repository for cigarette butts, to a web-based platform to help military veterans negotiate the morass of paperwork when applying for disability benefits.

DifferenceMaker judge examines prosthetic hand Image by Tory Germann
DifferenceMaker judge Mark Saab examines eNABLE Lowell's 3D-printed prosthetic hand.

“This is so rewarding,” said Peter Larsen, senior biology major and main speaker for eNABLE. Larsen is a DifferenceMaker veteran. As a freshman, he helped develop a proposal for a video education channel on YouTube, reaching the semifinals. The eNABLE team is ready to keep pushing development of their product.

“We don’t plan to stop. There are a lot more families out there who need help,” said Larsen, who was joined on the eNABLE team by senior exercise physiology major Katherine Bilodeau, senior biology major Kreg Kaminski, senior mechanical engineering major Alexander Peters, junior exercise physiology major Allison Dunbar and sophomore business administration major Shannon Maguire.

During its pitch, the eNABLE team showed pictures of Ethan, an 8-year-old Florida boy born with a right hand with a thumb and no fingers, who is using the first of the team’s prosthetic hands.

The team Security Top makes its pitch Image by Tory Germann
The Security Top team makes its pitch to judges during the fourth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

“We can help 2,000 children just like Ethan,” Larsen said. “He’s an amazing kid.”

“The DifferenceMaker program really symbolizes everything great about this university,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told the students. She said the challenge allows students to “take an idea and do something wonderful, go out and change people’s lives.”

“You are taking UMass Lowell to the next level,” she said.

During deliberations, judges commented how much teams had improved since the challenge was launched four years ago.

For Mark Saab ’81, ’13, chief technical officer at Vention Medical, the competition has grown tougher to judge.

“I’ve seen them all but have judged just one other time,” said Saab. “I’d almost really rather sit in the audience. What I like about judging is that you get a lot of information ahead of time about these teams and projects. But what’s hard is how good they’ve become. At first, it was easier. Now, everybody knows what to do and how to do it. That makes our job as judges more difficult.”

DifferenceMaker judges deliberate Image by Tory Germann
Judges deliberate in private after hearing the pitches at the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

The panel also included Rich Miner ’86, ’89, ’97, co-founder of Android and general partner at Google Ventures, a first-time judge who lauded “a lot of well thought-out ideas.”

More than 100 people filled Moloney Hall during the presentations.

Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy spoke of the magnetism that surrounds the university and the city. In the two years since he was named city manager, three corporations have settled in Lowell, drawing nearly 2,000 workers.

“And the No. 1 one reason they all gave was the proximity to UMass Lowell and the talented workforce it introduces each year,” he said.

The winners:

  • Campuswide DifferenceMaker: eNABLE Lowell, $6,000.
  • Significant Social Impact: Veterans QFR, a web platform that simplifies applying for service-connected disability benefits, $4,500.
    • Innovative Technology Solution: Flair, a wearable device connecting to smartphone via Bluetooth that sends information to emergency contacts with the push of a button, $4,500.
  • Contribution to a Healthier Life: OmniSense, a device that tracks the motion of a barbell, relaying data including path and acceleration of the barbell to a smartphone, $4,500.
  • First Product to Market: TopaCan, a can-top ashtray that turns an empty beverage can into an environmentally friendly repository for the disposal of cigarette butts, $4,500.
  • Honorable mention: SmartEater, WordProMobile App, Biodigestor-aided Solutions in Haiti, Happy Heart Cart and Security Top, $2,000 each.
  • Fan Favorite: Expect, an application tying communication from emergency medical services to health care facilities, $1,000.