By David Perry
In the end, the entrepreneurial idea that hovered above the DifferenceMaker competition was drones.
Iron Legion, senior computer science major George Le and junior criminal justice major Peter Maitland’s network of drones designed to aid law enforcement and other first responders, took the top trophy, the Campus Wide DifferenceMakers award, and a top purse of $6,000.
The field of 10 finalists in the sixth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge was also typically full of ideas that simultaneously seek to help humanity while making money or, as Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said in kicking off the evening, “doing good while doing well.”
In the fall, 67 teams of students began the competition. In the final round, the remaining projects included a filter to extract lead from drinking water, a cardiac screening service for students and a device aimed at helping people with disabilities and ailments open and close doors easier.
In all, $50,000 in cash and in-kind legal services – donated by alumni and other sponsors – was awarded to teams.
Each team had five minutes to present their idea to a panel of four alumni judges (Mark Saab ’81, ’13, Mary Burns ’84, Janis Raguin ’92 and Cindy Conde ’87, '91), then faced five minutes of questions from the judges. Asst. Prof. Neil Shortland from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences served as the master of ceremonies and kept things moving from the podium. Rowdy the River Hawk worked the crowd like an old pro.
“The caliber of this event has consistently grown, from the ideas themselves to the way teams present themselves onstage,” said Steve Tello, vice provost for innovation and workforce development. He credited the alumni mentors and a series of workshops for some of that. But Le and Maitland “took advantage of everything and are really going places” with Iron Legion.
“The idea came up when we were having a couple of drinks,” said Le, “which has often been the birthplace of a lot of great ideas.”
They told the crowd that their drones could serve municipalities in several ways, but would especially benefit police, who, for all of their equipment, “lack situational awareness.”
Le told the story of a standoff in Nashua, N.H. last October, when police surrounded a suspect in a home. Though the SWAT team heard a gunshot, they could not tell what happened. The standoff lasted eight hours until police finally determined the man had killed himself.
“So they had an eight-hour standoff with a dead body,” said Le. He said a drone carrying thermal detection cameras could have determined the man’s location.
“Drones are only about 10 years old,” said Le, “and they haven’t really been tapped into by law enforcement yet. … Municipalities need this, the best modern tool to ensure public safety and inspire efficiency of public service.”
He said drones could be used across municipal services, but especially among first responders. The team continues to develop its product to launch in the market.
Other winners, each taking home $4,500, included First to Market winners Mass Heartbeat (cardiac screenings for students); Significant Social Impact winner ClassRoots (a learning platform bringing classmates together to bond and share strengths); and Innovative Technology winner Dexter (a robotic arm that sprays pesticides with precision). The Fan Favorite was semifinalist T.A.P. (a peer study/performance improvement program), which earned $1,000. Other finalists earned honorable mention and $2,000 each.
ClassRoots’ win was also noteworthy as duo Nicholas Norcross and Kevin Seery comprised the first team to represent a collaboration with Middlesex Community College. Seery is from MCC.
“This opens up whole new opportunities for our students, especially in that it’s a partnership with UMass Lowell, which is the No. 1 school our students transfer to,” said MCC’s Judith Hogan, dean of the school’s business, legal studies and public service division. “What amazes me is how teams and projects cut across disciplines.”