Thirty-six students from six different schools competed in the University of Rhode Island’s third-annual, 48-hour hackathon: HealthHacksRI.
This year’s program was centered around “aging in an Internet of Things world,” a topic “near and dear” to the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, whose advisor, Catherine Taylor, delivered the event’s keynote. Additionally, the topic is a popular focus of discussion in the Rhode Island life sciences scene, said URI Director for Entrepreneurship Deedee Chatham.
Choosing the subject matter is a group effort. “What has helped us a lot is … we have a collaborative team,” said Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor of electrical computer and biomedical engineering at URI, speaking to the decision to focus on aging and its myriad associative issues this year.
“Each one of them is a rock star innovator, and they make me feel optimistic about our future.”
“We have a higher health care age,” he continued. “That becomes costly for the country … to solve now because the lifespan is increasing across the globe as well, [coupled with a] lower birth rate. We are now in a situation where we have to start thinking about how do we have a lower cost, not just in health care.” That means tackling issues like loneliness, insurance and physical comfort for the elderly, among others.
It was these issues that participating students were tasked to tackle during the program’s three parts. It included a brainstorming and networking session, or “speed-storming,” on Friday evening, a day of building and creating at the URI College of Engineering at Schneider Electric and the Makerspace in Carothers Library. Finally, on Sunday, the participants presented their designs at the event showcase. Fourteen local thought leaders from local universities and the Ocean State entrepreneurship scene served as judges and mentors.
“We brought them into help the college students test their ideas, get their ideas validated,” Chatham said.
Three teams placed, with the first-place prize of $1,000 going to Team Drogo (Mark Landergan, Andrew Joshua Nagal, Ben Hylak and Alex Tacescu) from Worcester Polytechnic Institute for their motion tracking undergarments for the elderly. Second place ($500) went to Team ProGlass (AM Esfar Ala, Erika Naumann Gaillat, Md Shaad Mahmud), a University of Massachusetts team that pitched a device that would accurately detect falls via head motion. Third place (and $250) went to Team Fulfit (Dylan Kennedy, James Gannon, Long Zou, Dylan Young, Graem Timmons) of the University of Rhode Island, which presented a smart textile that detects muscular degradation.
At the showcase, students were judged on five elements of their solutions: design, implementation, scalability, originality and marketability, and teams were given five minutes to present and an additional two minutes to answer questions from the judges. “It went very quickly,” Chatham said.
The event was sponsored in part by the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, who citied “mission alignment” as one of the core reason the group got involved. “This is the kind of stuff that we love to do,” said Health and Wellness Initiative Manager Hailey Bathurst. “These are just students with really great views on the word. It’s a really interesting way to feed a next generation of problem solvers.”
Chatham agreed. “Ten teams made it through the finish line of this 48-hour design/build fest, and every single one of those 36 students chose to spend their weekend brainstorming, problem solving, designing, building, networking and pitching their solutions to improve the lives of older adults in our society,” she said. “Each one of them is a rock star innovator, and they make me feel optimistic about our future.”