Runners-Up: Engineering A Better Humanity Over Financial Reward

The ConnectKnee team topped a field of 17 to take home top honors at the recent DifferenceMaker/Francis College of Engineering competition.
The ConnectKnee team topped a field of 17 to take home top honors at the recent DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering competition.

By David Perry

It was a cousin’s lacrosse injury that inspired Alyssa Mulry to dream up ConnectKnee, a brace that tracks a patient’s recovery time. Mulry’s cousin dislocated her patella during a soccer game, requiring long recovery. Then a friend and family members also suffered knee injuries.

“I saw first-hand how limited and discouraging recovery for a knee injury was,” says Mulry, a senior biomedical engineering major from Rutland, Massachusetts. “One thing stayed the same: a slow and often discouraging recovery. Then the idea really just took off after that.” 

ConnectKnee topped a field of 17 entries in the seventh-annual DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition. The top three teams, and a crowd favorite, won cash prizes. Overall, five teams were selected from the preliminaries in November to present their pitches to a panel of judges. 

Adding an element of surprise, the finalists did not know beforehand that they were chosen to pitch. Mulry and her team – Jackson Kelley, Tiffany Miller and Brennan Macaig – earned $2,500 and an automatic berth in the DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge finale in the spring. 

“We are surprised and extremely grateful to have won,” Mulry said following the two-hour Zoom-broadcast competition. “There were so many incredible teams presenting. The competition was very strong."

The ConnectKnee team, all juniors and seniors who are majoring in biomedical and mechanical engineering, business and criminal justice, created a knee brace that uses built-in sensors to accurately monitor and track the recovery time of knee-injury patients. Using sensors to monitor healing provides more up-to-the-minute information and saves on both the cost and recovery time associated with knee injuries, the students say. 

The team formed last year and won $4,000 at the spring 2020 DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge for the Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle prize, sponsored by Circle Health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept ConnectKnee and other teams from coming up with a prototype, and judges focused more on concept than physical product. 

Prototyping is next, says Mulry. Parts are on order, and “we can’t wait to build it and start having individuals try it out and receive feedback. 

“We also hope to continue to work with the DifferenceMaker and other mentors to see where the future of ConnectKnee can go.” 

Runners-up FEMME, which seeks to help Nigerian women obtain and self-sufficiently design and develop feminine hygiene products from locally sourced materials, won $1,500. 

Third-place team Strip Away the Backlog, with its plan to simplify and speed up the use of rape kits by police, medical professionals and crime labs, won $1,000. 

An Apple A Day, which designed an apple-shaped container to make taking prescription pills more appealing for children who need them, and Wonder Wheel, which designed an affordable wheelchair using power-assist technology, rounded out the top five. 

Terminus, A Terrarium for Mars, a plan to make life sustainable on Mars, landed the People’s Choice Award and $500, thanks to votes from those who registered to attend the event. They watched pre-recorded videos and voted on their favorite. 

In their pitches, FEMME and Strip Away the Backlog said their goal was not to make money, but to help others. 

“What an outpouring of desire to help people,” noted Provost Joseph Hartman in his closing remarks. “I don’t know how many times I heard tonight, ‘We’re not in it for the money, we’re here to help people.’” 

DifferenceMaker is a problem-solving vehicle to make a difference in the world “whether for profit or non-profit,” said Holly Butler, Entrepreneurial Initiatives Program Director. 

She said it’s “nice to see a mix of these teams” at the competition. The projects aimed at the greater good may be a sign of the times in a year dominated by COVID-19, political division and the effects of climate change, Butler noted. 

“Perhaps those larger societal problems are aiding our students thinking more about helping people,” she said. 

The judging panel included Chad LaFrance ’92, Business Operations and Engineering Manager – Mixed Signal Custom Products, Texas Instruments; Mark Saab ’81, ’13, founding trustee of the Saab Family Foundation; Ram Sudireddy ’92, co-founder of Bento; Manijeh Goldberg ’82, ’84, CEO and founder of Privo Technologies; and Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system and UMass Lowell distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technology and innovation. 

Butler encouraged all teams to enter the $50,000 Idea Challenge by Feb. 12.