Tech Launch Arizona Funds Five App Projects to Benefit Society

 Tech Launch Arizona, in collaboration with University of Arizona Research, Innovation and Impact and Arizona FORGE, has awarded funding to five teams of students, faculty and community members to develop software or mobile apps with the goal of bringing them to the public as impactful solutions to benefit society. Through this Impact Software/App Challenge, TLA, the office that commercializes University of Arizona inventions for the public good, created the competition to engage students in proposing software-based solutions to real-world problems, with the goal of providing funding to bring selected solutions to life.

“This idea-stage competition is part of a bigger effort to engage students in innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Doug Hockstad, assistant VP of TLA. “We developed the challenge in close collaboration with Arizona FORGE, which is focused on instilling an entrepreneurial mindset into the student experience.”

With support from Arizona FORGE, TLA organized the challenge and offered $150,000 in project funding to be divided among the selected team proposals. While teams must include students, other team members could include faculty members, university staff, or community advisors. Proposals were required to align with one or more categories, which TLA selected to align with the focuses of the UArizona Strategic Plan: Human Health; Space Exploration and Optical Solutions; National Defense and Security Systems; Resilience (Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions); and Workforce Development (Creating Jobs and Making Better Workplaces).

The panel of judges who evaluated the 22 proposals included representatives from TLA, Arizona FORGE, and ecosystem partners Hexagon Mining, Banner Health Venture Group and UArizona startup Neuro-ID.

While focused on software solutions, the challenge was modeled after the TLA’s Asset Development, or “AD”, program, which provides funds to UArizona employees, such as faculty, researchers and staff, to develop early-stage inventions and ready them for commercialization. AD projects often involve activities like creating a prototype, confirming functionality, and exploring scalability.

Teams were required to create a proposal that mimicked an AD proposal, ensuring that their solutions answered questions like: Does the project address a clear problem? Is there a market for the solution? Will the project result in a minimum viable product? Can it be completed on time and on budget?

“Every venture begins with generating an idea and then validating it. So when we talk about developing an entrepreneurial mindset it’s about shifting away from novelty toward intention, solving real problems. The five projects selected do exactly that,” said Brian Ellerman, founding director of Arizona FORGE.

Through the judging process, the panel scored each proposal against each of these questions. Based on the scores and how the entire $150,000 budget could be allocated for maximum impact, the panel selected the following five projects to fund.

Predicting Patient Risk of Developing Eye Problems

Age-related macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that can leave people blind, affects about 200,000 people in North America every year. Detected early, it can be managed and treated. Modern retinal optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging systems are being used more and more in private practices as a non-invasive way to evaluate patients’ eyes, specifically, the health of their retinas. While OCT produces a large amount of data, there is currently no software support for these systems to automate using this data to evaluate the risk of future problems like age-related macular degeneration or AMD.

Student Artin Majdi and his teammates proposed to develop a system to analyze OCT imaging data and identify people who are at a high risk for progression to developing sight-threatening AMD.

Majdi’s teammates include Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences John Paul SanGiovanni, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences Mentor-in-Residence Emre Toker, Director of the UA Data science Institute and co-principal investigator for CyVerse at the BIO5 Institute Nirav Merchant, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering Robert Snyder.

Smartphone Screening for Skin Cancer

Skin spectroscopy allows for the non-invasive study of the skin by observing the interaction of different wavelengths of light and the different layers of the skin. Traditional spectroscopic equipment for this analysis is expensive, bulky, and requires extensive calibration.

James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences student Justina Bonaventura and biomedical engineering student Thomas Knapp teamed up with optical sciences professor Travis Sawyer and product advisor John Koshel, to propose the development of a software app and interface control for a smartphone spectrometer for diagnosing of, and screening for, melanoma. Bonaventura and Knapp were undergraduate students when they submitted their proposal and are now graduate students in their respective programs. 

“What is needed,” the team wrote in their proposal, “is an inexpensive, handheld spectrometer with ease of calibration such that it can be used in any situation, including the field, medical labs, and by general consumers.”

Estimates are that over 100,000 adults will be diagnosed with invasive skin melanoma in 2021. Spectroscopy can identify melanoma compared to normal tissue and non-melanoma skin cancers with greater than 93% accuracy.

Developing Healthcare Apps Without Code

Students Devin van Allen and Jahnavi Shriram, teaming up with Sriram Iyengar, professor of internal medicine at the College of Medicine – Phoenix, saw the need for a rapid, nimble development environment to create personalized, multi-lingual systems to allow patients to manage their own information.

As opposed to “re-creating the wheel” each time the need for a new app arises, they proposed developing a platform for creating native Android and iOS apps. Using a visual point-and-click and drag-and-drop interface, the system would allow for the quick development of such apps without the need for deep expertise in coding. The system will allow providers to assemble information customized for specific patient populations such as advice on specific health issues in user-friendly formats, like easy-to-understand images and videos of doctors and nurses.

In their proposal, they outlined a vision where the technology will serve as the basis for a company that will bring the solution to healthcare institutions that will use it to realize substantial cost and time savings by enabling the creation of patient self-management apps.  

Fitness for All Abilities

Student Benjamin Connor in the College of Medicine – Phoenix proposed the development of an app he dubbed “NoLimits” to address a specific gap in the fitness industry: individuals with disabilities.

“Too often a diagnosis of a physical disability is equated with inability, but this could not be further from the truth,” he wrote in his proposal. “Individuals with physical disabilities deserve the same opportunities to exercise and reap the benefits of an active lifestyle, and it is worth the time and effort to develop tools that make this a reality, regardless of someone’s diagnosis.”

According to Connor’s analysis, the current fitness app market does not have a good app for those with differing physical abilities. By creating a tool that shows these individuals how to use common at-home and gym equipment based on their unique abilities, he proposed that “we can create a more accessible fitness experience for those who can benefit greatly from it.”

Connor is collaborating with U.S. Paralympic coach Sharon Moskowitz on the project and has already connected with numerous rehab facilities and providers who have expressed interest in the app concept.

An App to Green Your Thumb

Too many people know the frustration of trying to care for and keep a plant healthy – and watching it slowly succumb regardless of best efforts. Finding the right balance of water or sunshine can be a delicate dance, especially here in the Southwest, but an interdisciplinary team of experts in computer science and architecture is targeting their skills to solve the problem.

In their submission, they proposed developing a phone app that can “scan your plants, analyze their health, and explain exactly what they need to stay healthy.”

The team consists of Ph.D. candidates in the Computer Science Department in the College of Science, Zaniar Ardalan and Ariyan Zarei, junior architect Soha Sabet (Masters in Architecture, 2017), and computer science masters student Maryam Eskandari. Their advisor is Vignesh Subbian, assistant professor of systems and industrial engineering and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering.

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