Catnap Outshines Wide-Ranging Field to Win $50K Idea Challenge
By Ed Brennen
With each passing pitch at the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute’s 11th annual $50,000 Idea Challenge, the Moloney Hall audience witnessed the breadth of brainpower at UMass Lowell — and the depth of innovative solutions by the 10 student teams competing in the finals.
In the end, biomedical engineering majors Fritznere Brutus, Michael Ciampo, Khadija El Hadad, Majd Elhachem, Matheus Fonseca and Haris Kum captured the top prize of the night — the $6,000 Rist Campus-Wide DifferenceMaker award — for Catnap, a device they are developing that parents can put on their child’s toe to sense if they are about to have a nocturnal asthma attack.
“It’s amazing to win, but it’s also a reminder: Now it’s time to start putting in the work,” said Kum, whose team also won the first-place prize of $2,500 at last semester’s DifferenceMaker Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition. The team will use its winnings to further develop a prototype for their device, which features a blood oxygen saturation monitor that sends an alert to a parent’s phone or smart device if it senses a drop in the child’s blood oxygen levels.
The Idea Challenge featured students at all stages of their UML careers, from first-year to graduate, representing eight departments from all five UML colleges. They emerged from a field of nearly 30 teams at the Preliminary Pitch Off on April 4 at O’Leary Library to compete in the finals, at which, besides the top prize, five awards of $4,000 were up for grabs.
The Commitment to a Sustainable Environment award, sponsored by the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, went to Solar Sails, a network of solar-powered autonomous drones that can provide continuous surveillance in the sky for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The team includes mechanical engineering majors Quin Liang, Samuel Maracallo, Michael McCarthy, Aidan McKeon and Brian Nguyen and computer science major Erin Tan.
Junior computer science majors Anthony Terravecchia and Nuno Mestre won the Sutherland Innovation Technology Solution award, sponsored by Andrew Sutherland '94, for Rent Scoop, a website that provides renters with community-driven data on rent prices in their area.
NeuroLyze, a device that can be inserted inside a helmet to detect and quantify the magnitude of impact that athletes endure in contact sports, took home the Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle award, sponsored by Enterprise Bank. The team includes senior mechanical engineering major Jeremy Hilton, senior computer science major Anthony Lawlor and junior applied biomedical sciences major Elliot Johnson.
A pair of apps, Smart Azan and App Track, shared the Jack M. Wilson First to Market award, sponsored by UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson.
Sophomore biology major Haad Naeem’s Smart Azan app, which he is developing with his uncle, is a way for Muslims to hear the five daily calls to prayer on their phone or home smart speaker. The app is already available in the Apple App Store and Google Play and has more than 30,000 users, Naeem says.
Naeem is minoring in marketing and heard about the DifferenceMaker program from Maria Matarazzo, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“Learning to sell is something everyone should know, no matter what field they’re in, and this program is perfect for that,” said Naeem, an honors student from Methuen, Massachusetts.
First-year accounting student Connor Ludford came up with App Track, which uses machine learning and natural language processing to tailor a résumé and cover letter to a specific job description, while applying for summer internships. Developing it through the DifferenceMaker program was not only a chance to receive funding, he says, but to make connections and learn from faculty and fellow students.
“It was great to have mentors for professional speaking, product development and bringing products to market,” the Pepperell, Massachusetts, native said.
The Significant Social Impact award, sponsored by UKG, went to first-year students Julie Sage (physics) and Andrew Theobald (computer science) for their project called Innovation, a kit that teaches the concepts of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) by letting you build historic inventions, such as a camera obscura, from a diverse range of inventors.
In her 10 years of volunteering as an Idea Challenge judge, business alum Lorna Boucher ’86 has noticed more students “digging into social impact” projects, a trend that she says could necessitate more awards in that category.
“I like that people are pivoting in that direction,” said Boucher, chief marketing and communications officer at financial technology firm Imperative Execution, who was impressed once again by the students’ broad range of ideas. “It’s inspiring and rejuvenating for us as alumni.”
Boucher was joined at the judges’ table by Brian Rist ’77, ’22, ’22 (H), Chancellor Emerita Jacquie Moloney ’75, ’92, Mark Saab ’81, Bhupen Shah ’92 and Amy Hoey ’88.
While deliberations were tough, Catnap “checked a lot of boxes” for the judges, said Hoey, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Lowell General Hospital.
“Everything about their idea really embodied what it means to be a River Hawk,” she said.
Fonseca, a first-year student, says working on Catnap “correlates perfectly” with his biomedical engineering curriculum.
“We’re going deep into research and applying what we’re learning outside the classroom,” he said.
“We’re carrying out the purpose of what it means to be a biomedical engineer, in the sense that we cooperate with medicine to help save lives without being a medical doctor,” added fellow first-year student Elhachem.
Honorable mention awards of $2,000 went to decentralized messaging service CryptoPigeon (computer science majors Akshay Kolli, Anveshak Rathore and Shiva Patel), educational nonprofit Shared Vision/Vision House (architectural studies student Sammy Santana) and Quick Release Window Bars (MBA student Deigo King).
Santana, an honors student who is minoring in digital media, is working as a DifferenceMaker co-op this year, filming events and pitch contests. He had to step from behind the camera at the Idea Challenge to take the stage and pitch his nonprofit, which provides bilingual digital media training to underserved communities.
“It shows that I know what I’m talking about in this field,” the junior from Lawrence, Massachusetts, said. “I know there’s an opportunity; it’s just about making it accessible to people.”
The $1,000 Fan Favorite award, which was open to teams that didn’t make the finals, went to Votecational, a website and app that provides a dashboard for clarity and insight on voting information, bills and candidates. Led by sophomore mechanical engineering major Dawson Durgin, the team also includes junior mechanical engineering major Mark O’Neil and junior business major Emily Giron.
All of the finalists now have the opportunity to continue honing their ideas at the DifferenceMaker Summer Boot Camp. The winning teams, meanwhile, have access to $15,000 of in-kind legal services, provided by corporate sponsor Foley & Lardner LLP, where engineering alum Chris McKenna ’89 is office managing partner.
Rist, who along with his wife Kim ’22 (H) has been a longtime supporter of the DifferenceMaker program, praised all finalists for their “astounding” efforts.
“Every year we come back,” he said, “it gets better and better.”