URI Team Takes Third Place at Health Hacks RI

By Neil Nachbar

Ten teams of students competed in a 48-hour design challenge called Health Hacks RI at the University of Rhode Island from Oct. 13-15. The 36 participants were given the task of designing, building and pitching a product that would improve the lives of older adults.

The students were granted full access to the URI maker space in the Carothers Library and the URI College of Engineering’s capstone design area at Schneider Electric, where they could turn their preliminary ideas into a problem-solving device.

“Those students chose to spend their weekend brainstorming, creating and developing devices to improve the lives of older adults in our society,” said URI Director for Entrepreneurship Deedee Chatham. “They are rock star innovators and they make me feel optimistic about our future.”

After working on their projects on the first two days of the event, the teams were given five minutes each on the third day to pitch their device to a panel of judges, followed by two minutes to respond to questions from the judges.

The URI team of Dylan Kennedy, James Gannon, Long Zou, Dylan Young and Graem Timmons captured third place and won $250.

The group designed a line of clothing with a smart textile application that tracks muscular degradation. They also programmed an app to suggest activities that encourage muscle use for under-used muscle groups.

“Our project was designed to confront what, to us, are the two most significant issues associated with aging: sarcopenia and cognitive decline,” explained Young, a junior in the biomedical engineering program. “Our approach was designed to target both issues simultaneously through wearable technology.”

The first step the team took was to weave silver coated conductive fibers into a T-shirt to act as an EMG (electromyogram) for various muscle groups. Unlike a common EMG, this method did not require the usual bulky electrodes to be adhered to a patient’s skin. Instead, the material allowed a patient to be monitored by simply getting dressed. This biosensor was then wired to an Arduino microcontroller that was outfitted with bluetooth capabilities.

The EMG data were transmitted over WiFi to an app the students designed to compare the measured muscle activity to healthy levels of muscle activity for a bicep. If the user’s activity levels fell beneath a predetermined “healthy” threshold, then the app would recommend activities that the user could do to prevent muscle degradation right on a patient’s cell phone.

“This was the part of our project that was truly novel,” said Young. “Rather than instructing an elderly, likely sedentary, patient to perform exercises that they were unlikely to actually do, we instead recommended various activities that they could do over the course of a day. For example, in the case of bicep inactivity, the app would recommend that instead of picking up a dumbbell, the patient could perform an activity such as painting or watering their garden.”

While brainstorming what the group would create, several ideas were discussed, but nothing jumped out, that was until Young and Timmons went to dinner on the first night with Dr. John Luo, CEO of Doctor’s Choice and one of the mentors at the event.

“Johnny started explaining some of the techniques that can help focus idea development,” recalled Timmons, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering and computer science. “He asked Dylan and I what we would do for a project if we ignored any obstacles we might face. We explained what we had thought of, with some reservation. As we parsed through it, it began to seem more and more realistic. When we broke down what we needed to accomplish it, we realized it was entirely possible and that we would be able to access the necessary materials and resources. The rest is history.”

The time constraint of the event added an element of pressure to an already difficult project.

“I think the most challenging part about Health Hacks was that we had very limited time to brainstorm a concrete idea, design a product and develop a marketing plan,” said Zou, a junior studying electrical engineering.

While the event was stressful at times, the students were grateful for the experience.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience is that it showed me how much can be accomplished in a short period of time if you set your mind to it,” stated Young. “I think having done something like this will help me be more productive with my general school work.”

“The experience was awesome and I’m so thankful to those who organized it and put so much time into helping us out,” said Timmons. “This was a great opportunity to put my skills to the test and find out where I stood. Placing third was such a great feeling, since I was worried about whether I could even create something at all when the event started.”

One of the organizers of the event was URI Assistant Professor of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering Kunal Mankodiya.

“Hack-a-thons demand in-depth planning,” said the professor. “We planned Health Hacks for more than four months to make sure we created a life-long learning experience for all who participated. Health Hacks RI has become an important annual event for our young generation to think big and test their ideas to solve existing issues around us.”

Based on the reaction of the students, the event accomplished just what Mankodiya intended.

“The hackathon gave me immediate hands-on experience where I had the chance to brainstorm, create, question, struggle, and collaborate with a team of imaginative people,” said Gannon, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and Spanish. “It is such a mind-opening experience to address real-world problems by taking lines drawn on a whiteboard and developing that idea into a real product.”

The five categories the judges used for criteria were design, market value, scalability/ manufacturability, idea originality, and implementation. Judges were from URI, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Ximedica, and entrepreneurs from New York City and Rhode Island.

The first place team, from WPI, won $1,000 for designing motion tracking undergarments for the hip surgery rehabilitation market to enable physical therapy in patients’ homes. The team also created an app to encourage use.

Second place and $500 was awarded to a team from UMass Dartmouth for inventing a device that more accurately detects falls. It combined head motion data with existing device capability.

URI partnered with Aging 2.0 and Social Enterprise Greenhouse to organize the event. Sponsors included URI College of Engineering, URI College of Business Administration, URI College of Health Sciences, the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, Rhode Island Geriatric Education Center, IEEEVerizon, EpiVaxXimedica, Doctor’s Choice, and the National Science Foundation.