Team Catnap Wins DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition

Students smile and celebrate while holding an oversized check Image by Ed Brennen
Catnap team member Majd Elhachem hoists the first-place check while celebrating with teammates after winning the DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

More than 25 million Americans have asthma, including nearly 2 million children under the age of 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, more than 4,000 people in the U.S. died from asthma attacks. 

Children who suffer an asthma attack while sleeping are particularly vulnerable, as their parents may not know they’re in distress.

A team of UMass Lowell students is trying to address this problem with an oxygen-sensing device called Catnap — a project that won the ninth annual DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition, held recently at University Crossing.

Biomedical engineering majors Fritznere Brutus, Khadija El Hadad, Michael Ciampo, Majd Elhachem and Matheus Fonseca earned the first-place prize of $2,500 and will automatically advance to April’s preliminary pitch-off for the DifferenceMaker $50K Idea Challenge.

“It feels amazing to see our hard work and determination pay off,” says Elhachem, who celebrated with teammates after accepting the first-place check from Dean of Engineering James Sherwood.

A first-year student from Andover, Massachusetts, Elhachem says he was inspired to create the device after learning that his great grandfather died from a nocturnal asthma attack.

A student holding a microphone gestures to a screen with an airplane diagram behind him while making a presentation Image by Ed Brennen
Mechanical engineering major Quin Long Liang presents his Solar Sails project, which finished second in the DifferenceMaker Engineering Prototyping Competition.
Team Catnap will use their winnings to develop the prototype for their device, which features a blood oxygen saturation monitor that goes around a child’s toe. The monitor connects by wire to an ankle band, which would send an alert to a parent’s phone or smart device, such as an Amazon Alexa, if it senses a drop in the child’s blood oxygen levels.

“It’s amazing to me that that’s not already out there on the market,” says Mark Saab ’81, ’13 (H), who judged the final round with fellow engineering alumni Chad LaFrance ’92, Greg Sydney ’81 and Mike Rider ’87. 

“I’ve judged a lot of these competitions,” Saab adds, “and I thought this year we probably saw the largest number of really good projects that could all potentially make it to the market.”

Twenty-two teams applied for this year’s Prototyping Competition, which challenges students to turn an idea into an actual product, whether it’s a mechanical device, software application or integrated system. After two hours of poster presentations to nine preliminary-round judges, six teams advanced to the finals, where they had five minutes to pitch their product.

A woman holds a microphone and speaks while another woman holds a backpack during a presentation Image by Ed Brennen
Team PackStrap members Meredith Citrone and Katie McDonagh present during the DifferenceMaker Engineering Prototyping Competition.
Mechanical engineering majors Quin Long Liang and Aalap Patel took second place (and $1,500) for Solar Sails, a network of autonomous, solar-powered drones that could fly for weeks and be used by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Liang, a first-year student from Boston, says he applied for the competition at the last minute after seeing an email from DifferenceMaker.

“It’s incredible that I can have this opportunity as a freshman — and that it might turn into something,” says Liang, who is head of manufacturing for the Design, Build, Fly Club and a member of the Drone Club. “It’s actually hitting a market need that’s super-important.”

RehaBand, an adjustable resistance band that a person can wear to recover from muscle atrophy, finished in third place and won $1,000. The team includes biomedical engineering majors Alexa DeVito, Maria Ferreira, Helen Kham, Timothy Roach and Ardon Zibel.

A man sitting on the ground holds a microphone in one hand and a metal bar with padding in the other Image by Ed Brennen
Exercise science major Kyle Callahan demonstrates his team's Physical Engineers project during the DifferenceMaker Prototyping Competition.
The $500 Fan Favorite award went to the Project Poseidon team of Abdullah Jasim, Dylan Cormier, Abdelsalam Abutabikh, Amr Elkordy, Jeswin Jees, Jessica Borst, Charlie Kenny and Mustafa Al Hado.

Lethycia Sanchez, a sophomore environmental engineering major from São Paulo, Brazil, says she enjoyed developing a solution to a problem with classmates from different engineering disciplines. She worked with mechanical engineering majors John Monsen and Emily LaBelle and plastics engineering major Jack Sullivan on Filamill, a machine that would turn recycled plastic in 3D printer filament.

“Everyone has different perspectives from their different classes, and we all help each other connect with our different areas of expertise,” says Sanchez, who looks forward to taking the project to the “next level” at the $50K Idea Challenge in the spring.