Program Alumni, Industry Experts Help Teams Bring Ideas into Focus

At DifferenceMaker Demo Day, the women of Digital Life Prosthetics made a better pitch for their project.      Image by Courtesy

At DifferenceMaker Demo Day, the four biomedical engineering majors of Digital Life Prosthetics were among nine teams that showed off revamped pitches, thanks to a four-week boot camp.

By David Perry

Sometimes, envisioning success makes all the difference, says senior biomedical engineering major Smriti Kumar.

She found the vision while attending DifferenceMaker’s recent Summer Boot Camp, where a program alum shared how she achieved success on a grand scale. That inspired Kumar and her team to refine their project and pitch for Demo Day — the culmination of the intensive, four-week camp.

Kumar’s DifferenceMaker project, Digital Life Prosthetics, with a team that includes senior biomedical engineering majors Alejandro Luna Juarez, Tina Thuy Nguyen Hoang and Amy Nguyen, plans to make and market low-cost hand prosthetics to those born with congenital defects.

The four were among nine finalists from the 2021 DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge that came together recently for Demo Day to pitch their projects, show fresh approaches and maybe land a mentor to help them turn an idea into reality.

Other pitches included a weekly pill storage dispenser (Apple A Day), a terrarium for growing food (Terminus) and the wearable NavLens, which increases spacial awareness for the visually impaired.

Held via Zoom, Demo Day followed the DifferenceMaker program’s four-week boot camp, where the teams’ ideas were poked, prodded and reassembled with the help of advisors, professors and guest speakers, some of them alumni of the DifferenceMaker program.

For Demo Day, each team had four minutes to present a refined pitch before facing online questions from more than five dozen audience members.

“The event was about the students sharing their hard work and findings through the boot camp,” says Holly Lalos, director of the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute. “It was also a chance for them to meet potential mentors and gain feedback.”

Kumar calls boot camp “a constant cycle of scrapping and reworking out assumptions every week.” With the help of advisors, they bounced back with fresh approaches.

All nine teams attended each boot camp session and completed weekly homework, says Lalos. Weekly sessions featured guest speakers, ranging from patent attorney Chris McKenna ‘89 to alumni entrepreneurs who have made a career with their DifferenceMaker ideas, such as Rajia Abdelaziz ‘16, co-founder and CEO of invisaWear, the safety jewelry company. Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system and distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation at UMass Lowell, also spoke to boot campers.

In addition to Abdelaziz, several other alums served as advisors to the boot camp. Brian Rist '77, chairman and founder of the Rist Family Foundation and founder of the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, Michele Holland '87 (co-founder of Performance Rehab Inc.) and Glenn Morgan '86 (chief operation officer of Fuseideas) served as advisors, as did Brent Shell, a DifferenceMaker fellow and assistant teaching professor in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences.

“Our favorite part of the session was when industry experts came in to share their words of wisdom and experience. They gave us incredible insight and opened our eyes to the steps we need to consider for Digital Life Prosthetics’ future,” Kumar says.

It’s also where she met Abdelaziz, whose company has taken off, recently landing a partnership with security company ADT.

“Rajia’s journey of hard work and perseverance was the most memorable moment of boot camp,” says Kumar. “It was reassuring to know that a female engineer from UML – like us – was able to make her dream a reality. That was beyond inspiring for us.”

Abdelaziz enjoys meeting with the young entrepreneurs.

“It brings me so much joy to hear how impactful my story was to the students,” says Abdelaziz. “I love making time to be a mentor because I love sharing my story with the students and showing them that they, too, have the potential to be this successful. When I started invisaWear in 2016, no one thought a 21-year-old female engineer would be able to bring smart, life-saving jewelry to market, let alone raise millions of dollars.”

But she has, and is proof others can, too.

“I hope students find my story inspirational and that it encourages them to follow their dreams,” she says.

For Kumar and the other DifferenceMaker participants, the next step is to be matched with mentors. A survey was sent out to all participants to help match mentors to the teams they might best work with.

Since its launch in 2012, more than 60,000 students have been introduced to the DifferenceMaker program and $527,800 has been awarded to student teams to help them develop their ideas. More than 40 companies have been established and they have raised $5 million.