When Connor McEwen (ECE ’14) learned about Refresh, an energy-efficient vending machine designed by recent alums from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rhode Island School of Design, he knew this was an idea that showed potential and wanted to invest in it.
Not too many undergraduates have the ability to make a difference in getting a startup off the ground financially, but McEwen isn’t just any student. He’s one of the investment decision makers for the Dorm Room Fund.
The Dorm Room Fund, a student-run venture fund supported solely by Philadelphia-based First Round Capital, allows entrepreneurial students to have $500,000 to use toward investing in student startups over a two-year period. The program has roots in New York, Philadelphia, and Silicon Valley and came to Boston last fall, where members hope to invest in about 25 companies by 2015.
McEwen, who has been passionate about technology all of his life, was one of 11 students chosen to work with the Dorm Room Fund’s inaugural Boston group, who meet weekly at the Cambridge Innovation Center.
When it comes to investment strategy, McEwen said: “I personally am most interested in student-led tech startups that have the potential to really solve a problem and impact how we live our lives. Since our goal is to help students build their companies, I also like companies where I can understand and use the product and therefore help the most.”
McEwen, who is also a member of the BU Entrepreneurship club and runs a BU Startups newsletter, first became interested in entrepreneurship during his freshman year, thanks to his roommate, Nam Chu Hoai (CS ’14), who had previously worked at a startup.
“We started reading about them on a few websites, discussing companies, and working on an idea ourselves,” McEwen said.
He even took a year off to work on that project, Credport. Though he and Chu Hoai eventually realized that the market didn’t need their product, they learned a lot and McEwen called the time “a great experience.”
Today, when McEwen’s not working on the Dorm Room Fund, he’s back at Boston University working on his senior design project. He teamed up with biomedical engineering students in Assistant Professor Ahmad Khalil’s lab to design an LED device that will help improve synthetic biology experiments.
“Our device basically shines an LED light on a well plate, an enclosure holding a bunch of different cell samples, for a programmable duration, which will enable researchers in optogenetics and synthetic biology to run better experiments more efficiently and accurately,” said McEwen.
As a senior design mentor, Khalil has noticed that McEwen has shown great passion when applying his strong technological background toward his research.
“He brings infectious enthusiasm and wonderful ideas to the lab and is never reluctant to seek advice from my graduate students and me,” said Khalil.
Though McEwen initially thought about working on a startup-related project for senior design, he decided instead to focus his research on something he could only do at BU. Through this project, he’s able to utilize his own background in computer engineering and also work with students majoring in electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering.
That being said, his long-term focus remains the same. He doesn’t know exactly where he’ll be when he graduates this spring but he’s confident he’ll be working with a startup.
Interested in learning more about startups or the Dorm Room Fund? E-mail McEwen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
12/3/13: The Boston Globe – “Young college investors back vending machine”
10/29/13: The Daily Free Press – “Starting-up early”
9/10/13: The Boston Globe – “First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund expands to Boston, with initial investments this fall”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Over the last few weeks, nearly 20 million Americans tried accessing a broken United States health care site that couldn’t handle the traffic, among other problems. And even if you weren’t one of the many applying for health coverage, you’ve probably experienced network congestion at some point.
Typically, network congestion occurs if a link or node is carrying too much data; as a result, the quality of service drops. The most severe form of communication disruption is deadlocks. A deadlock happens when several messages mutually block each other so that their delivery is not just delayed but stopped permanently.
“This is a long-standing problem, which is practically important and theoretically challenging,” said Distinguished Professor Lev Levitin (ECE, SE). “It has been attracting the efforts of many researchers for decades.”
Professors Levitin and Mark Karpovsky (ECE) have been working with their students on this problem for several years, developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks. This work covered a lot of ground by establishing lower and upper bounds for an optimal solution, outlining their discovery of a new class of algorithms, and developing a few algorithms that could actually solve the initial optimization problem.
The last advance on this project was achieved this year by Levitin and his team – ECE alum, Ye Wu (MEng ’13), and Visiting Scholar, Mehmet Mustafa. They have been working on developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks.
“Without changing the topology of existing networks, we managed to improve saturation points so that congestion is less likely to happen and latency is reduced which means lower waiting time for users,” said Wu.
The team recently presented their work at OPNETWORK 2013, a conference that focused on advancing the state of application and network performance management. Impressed by their research, “A Study of Modified Turn Prohibition Algorithms for Deadlock Prevention in Networks,” the judges awarded them Best Technical Paper.
“Computer experiments, executed earlier and in the latest work by Ye Wu and other students under the guidance of Dr. Mustafa, clearly showed the superior performance of our algorithms versus different algorithms suggested by other research groups,” said Levitin. He went on to add that the majority of publications in the field are on ad hoc algorithms as opposed to the “tree-free” algorithms he and his team explored.
The work gave Wu a chance to travel to Washington, D.C., and deliver the presentation at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
“I met some really nice students and professors from different countries who were happy to talk about their research,” said Wu. “The audience, I think, was also smart enough to understand the key points of our project and asked really good questions.”
Now a Boston University graduate, Wu looks back at his professor fondly, describing Levitin as open-minded, even when his student was questioning his own theories.
“Professor Levitin is the best professor I’ve ever known,” said Wu. “Even when we had no idea how to begin a project, he’d point us in the right direction.”
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NSF Research Program Helps ENG Vets Shape Careers
US military personnel return from active duty with highly marketable knowledge and skills, but many find it difficult to quickly parlay their experience into well-paying jobs. To help rectify the situation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds the Veteran’s Research Supplement (VRS) program, which allows veterans at selected colleges and universities to participate in industrially relevant research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — fields in which job openings far outpace the supply of qualified US applicants.
Since the inception of VRS in 2011, the College of Engineering’s NSF Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems has welcomed the opportunity to engage veterans in research through this program.
“Vets come to us with an unusually strong work ethic and high confidence but often lack the experience to be comfortable in taking on a big research project,” said BU Photonics Center Director and Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE). “VRS gives them the opportunity to take on such projects and pursue careers in research, which is the main engine of our economy.”
So far two veterans have thrived in faculty-supervised summer projects funded by VRS, emerging not only with new research skills but also a more well-defined career path.
Cliff Chan: From Technician to Engineer
Cliff Chan, who deployed four times in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as an Air Force Guidance and Control Specialist, came to BU seeking to take his skillset to the next level. With a B.S. in mathematics and computer science from the University of California, San Diego, two years developing software for an electronic health records company, and four years maintaining aircraft control systems for the Air Force under his belt, Chan aspired to learn how to design the kinds of technologies he came across during his military service.
To transform himself from a technician to an engineer, he sought a way to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering in a reasonable timeframe without having to start from scratch, and he found it in the College of Engineering’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP). Like all LEAP students, Chan spent his first year taking undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, but got his first taste of engineering design the following summer (2011), thanks to the VRS program. Working for three months in Professor Jerome Mertz’s (BME) Biomicroscopy Lab within BU’s Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems, he developed software that enables microscopes to provide high-contrast images of biological samples in real time.
“The project was a real transition for me, as I had to solve a problem by first figuring out what I needed to learn, and then how to apply it,” recalled Chan, who was used to getting more explicit instructions in the Air Force and had never worked in a research lab. “It opened up my eyes to another world.”
Subsequently hired to work full-time in the Biomicroscopy Lab while completing his Master of Engineering in electrical engineering, Chan has continued to advance microscopy techniques aimed at improving medical diagnostic imaging. The experience has led him to consider working in research and development for defense and other industries, conducting experiments and designing devices with real-world applications.
It has also prepared him to work through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise in advancing new technologies.
“What I like about Cliff is that he’s undaunted,” said Mertz. “He wants to learn everything that’s out there to tackle his work. The problems we faced were much more complex than I had anticipated, but Cliff’s efforts definitely kept us on track, and kept us progressing.”
Chris Stockbridge: From Defusing Roadside Bombs to Protecting Future Soldiers
Chris Stockbridge returned to civilian life after five years as an officer and combat engineer in the Army that included two tours of duty in Iraq. During each deployment he came to appreciate the engineering behind technologies used to protect soldiers, including devices used to search for and destroy roadside bombs. Equipped with those experiences and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point, he applied to the PhD program in mechanical engineering at BU with the goal of working as a civilian engineer at a national military research lab.
“I came to BU to study micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), particularly those which could be of great value in military applications, and because I knew that the Photonics Center has a strong relationship with the US Army Research Laboratory,” said Stockbridge.
Supported last summer by the VRS program to serve as the lead student in an NSF-funded project in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab, he began fabricating MEMS for a new deformable mirror design for use in the Keck and other very large telescopes. Aimed at supplying the telescopes with mirrors that have more pixels for finer imaging control, his work could enable astronomers to make observations that shed light on the origin of the universe and the existence of life on extra-solar planets.
“The primary benefit to me from this project was spending more time doing hands-on MEMS fabrication work,” said Stockbridge, who had already spent two years working on the design of deformable mirrors in Bifano’s lab. “While I would prefer to work more in design after graduation, the hands-on skills are important for getting an appreciation of each process step that goes into building a MEMS mirror.”
As he has cultivated those skills, Stockbridge has proven to be an invaluable asset in Bifano’s lab.
“Chris is a consummate engineer who seems to thrive on tackling problems that are both thorny and hard, and I can see in his work the experience and training that he gained while serving in the Army,” said Bifano. “He is a natural collaborator, and all of the other students in my lab and in the labs of my close colleagues have come to rely on him for his strong sense of mechanical design and for his eagerness to help those around him. Chris will make a great professional engineer.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings and appliances
Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.
Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE) and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.
Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.
BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Associate Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, SE), Adjunct Research Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME) and ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.
Smarter Traffic Lights
A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is testing this system on a model mini-city in his lab.
Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (PhD, SE ’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.
The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.
Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey-based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.
Smarter Central Control
Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE), codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Professor Assaf Kfoury (CS), are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
-Leslie Friday (Videos by Joe Chan), BU Today
Top-Tier Faculty to Advance High-Impact Field
Synthetic biology brings together engineers, biologists and other life science researchers to conceive, design and build molecular biological systems that rewire and reprogram organisms to perform specified tasks. The field promises not only to yield new insights into biology but also to spark new technologies that could revolutionize healthcare, energy and the environment, food production, materials and global security. Recognizing the wide-ranging potential of synthetic biology and the trailblazing efforts of many of its faculty, the College of Engineering has launched the BU Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi) to advance this emerging discipline.
Poised to take a nationally preeminent role in advancing synthetic biology research, CoSBi unites core engineering faculty members that bridge diverse research interests, including microbial and metabolic engineering, immuno-engineering, cell reprogramming, computer-aided design and automation, single-cell analyses and systems modeling. In addition, the center involves leading researchers across the university with expertise in systems biology, leveraging their ability to reverse-engineer natural biological networks to help in the modeling, design and forward-engineering of synthetic biological networks with novel functions.
“We envision that CoSBI will serve as a focal point for activities in synthetic biology at Boston University and the larger Boston area, and help to advance the field toward applications in biomedical research, healthcare and other areas,” said Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE), one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, who directs the center.
CoSBi is located at 36 Cummington Mall, taking advantage of the newly renovated wet and dry facilities on the second floor and computational space on the third floor. Core faculty include Collins; Assistant Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME), the center’s associate director; Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics); and Assistant Professor Wilson Wong (BME), with 11 associate faculty members drawn from the College of Engineering, College of Arts & Sciences, and School of Medicine.
To advance its research agenda, CoSBi is expected to attract substantial government funding, major industrial collaborators and top-notch graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The center will develop and support large-scale, collaborative projects, organize an annual symposium on synthetic biology featuring prominent researchers from around the world, and host a regular seminar series showcasing research leaders in the field.
To enable students of all levels to learn about the fundamentals and practice of synthetic biology and explore their interests in the intersection of engineering and molecular biology, the center will play an active role in supporting research training, education and outreach activities. Center administrators aim to appoint new research faculty and staff; develop new fellowships for and facilitate mentoring of graduate students and postdoctoral associates; design new courses and produce educational videos; run international synthetic biology competition teams and summer workshops; and build community for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students studying synthetic biology.
“Synthetic biology is reshaping the discipline of biology, and attracting students and researchers with a diverse set of backgrounds,” said Khalil. “A central goal of CoSBi will be to prepare the next generation of synthetic biologists for this multidisciplinary type of research at an early stage, and to challenge them to think conceptually and creatively about how engineering can help in understanding life.”
Computing and embedded systems might not be something you think about everyday, but they’re found in devices we see all the time like MP3 players and traffic lights.
The potential of these systems continues to rise as engineers perfect their design. Imagine driving a car that could recognize traffic and switch lanes to avoid congestion or using a brain pacemaker to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Those were just a few of the possibilities Professor Yehia Massoud, the Head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, mentioned last month when he visited Boston University. He spoke as part of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department’s Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series.
Massoud was excited about current work being done on computing and embedded systems but said that before engineers are able to make some of the ideas a reality, scientists need to work on creating computing systems that are faster and perform better.
“Size is also important,” said Massoud. “They have to be small and very portable.”
He added that some of the problems engineers face concern overheating and configurability.
“Some of the ways we might solve this include new circuit design techniques, efficient signal processing techniques, developing new technologies, and using smart processing to sufficiently extract information,” said Massoud.
Massoud’s research team has been exploring how to automate analog/RF design and looking at how doing so could improve reliability, power consumption, and performance of embedded systems.
“The ultimate goal is to design a model in which there is an efficient trade-off for speed and accuracy,” he said.
Massoud is the editor of Mixed Signal Letters and an associate editor of the IEEE TVLSI and IEEE TCAS-I. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the DAC fellowship, the Synopsys Special Recognition Engineering Award, and Best Paper Awards at the 2007 IEEE International Symposium on Quality Electronic Design and the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Nanotechnology.
Massoud’s talk was the first in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The next talk features Professor George J. Pappas of the University of Pennsylvania who will speak on the topic, “Differential Privacy in Estimation and Control.” Hear him on October 23, 2013, at 4 p.m. in PHO 211.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The monthly magazine that publishes articles pertaining to embedded systems and programming initially reached out to Coskun for a Q&A session in its July 2012 issue. Pleased with the in-depth knowledge of the NSF CAREER Award winner, the editors contacted her again last spring to offer a permanent position.
Editor-in-Chief C. J. Abate said that because the magazine is international, he believed Coskun, who has professional and educational experience in the US, Switzerland and Turkey, would be a good fit.
“I’m always looking for contributions from talented, engaging engineers and academics who are working on cutting-edge technologies, such as green computing, thermal management and many-core systems,” Abate added. The magazine’s needs aligned with Coskun’s main research focus – energy-efficient computing.
Coskun was eager to begin. “This opportunity allows me to communicate research ideas, practical implementation aspects of research problems and solutions to engineering problems we come across in my lab to a general engineering and embedded systems audience,” she said.
So far Coskun has enjoyed the change of pace. As opposed to writing technical articles that involve solving open-ended problems specific to research communities, the columns enable her to connect aspects of her work to real-world problems in order to reach a broader audience. In her first column, Coskun discussed how one can build ‘leakage-power aware’ cooling control strategies to save energy and demonstrated an example implementation on a commercial server.
It was only after Coskun wrote her first column that she discovered she was the first female columnist in a magazine with a 25-year history. Noting that one of the magazine’s main goals is to inspire a wider, more diverse audience, Abate expects Coskun’s work to be an inspiration for young engineers and academics.
To add value to Circuit Cellar, Coskun plans to emphasize practical aspects while discussing solutions to energy efficiency problems. She looks forward to receiving feedback from readers to better understand their expectations and interests.
- Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)
A conference hosted by the Division of Materials Science & Engineering on September 27-29 brought 60 of the world’s leading materials scientists to campus to discuss the future of the rapidly emerging field of digital design of materials.
“Digital Design of Materials: The Way Forward for Materials Science?” included presentations and discussions on solid state chemistry in materials design and discovery, the search for materials such as superconductors, recent theoretical work underlying digital materials design, specific materials design techniques, and novel materials and their potential impact. Presentations focused on how advanced materials can be designed in silico, or via computer simulation.
Prof. David Campbell (Physics), the former ENG dean and chair of the conference organizing committee, said, “We were delighted that all the speakers took very seriously the need to reach out across the different disciplines, presenting the key ideas in their fields in ways that led to robust discussions and interactions. We are very hopeful that this meeting will help nucleate an on-going dialogue on the prospects of designing materials in silico.”
Researchers are moving beyond the explanation of complex materials’ properties and toward the prediction of how new materials will behave, a much harder task. Key to that will be harnessing the power of advanced computational capabilities to develop novel devices and technologies in silico. While computers have not yet reached the level required for this work, conference participants discussed the extent to which new materials’ properties can be predicted using existing advanced computational tools combined with researchers’ experience.
Conference sponsors included Boston University, the Division of Materials Science & Engineering, the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter and the National Science Foundation.
-Cheryl R. Stewart
Each year, the ECE Department requests projects from industry, the government, non-profits, small businesses, and individuals to present to students as part of a year-long, team-based course. Students create a plan for solving the problem, design a solution, test a product, and present a prototype at the end of the spring semester.
Senior design projects give students a chance to work on a task that expands upon traditional classroom assignments and prepares them for future employment and real-world challenges.
Last May, seniors presented their work to ECE professors, alumni, and industry engineers. The top prize was awarded to the team, “Calibration Device for Microarray Slides,” whose members worked with Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME) to develop a system for detection for microarray slides using an Interferometric Reflectance Imaging Sensor. The design has the potential to speed up disease detection in the future.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer customer, have any questions about the project, or would like to discuss potential ideas, please email Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE) at email@example.com.
Customers are not required to provide financial support but many have chosen to donate equipment or other resources. Project descriptions will be given to students at the beginning of September.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ENG Alums’ iPad App Helps Speech-Challenged Communicate
Every year, more than seven million people are affected by conditions that prevent them from speaking or understanding language. The disability may mean that stroke victims can’t tell a nurse that they need to use the bathroom, can’t share with their spouse that they are hungry, or can’t simply ask to please change the channel because they are about to watch a fourth straight episode of Law & Order.
To the rescue comes an iPad app designed by College of Engineering alumni Nick Dougherty, Eric Hsiao, and Gregory Zoeller (all CE ’12). Their creation, called Verbal Care, helps nonverbal patients communicate a desire for things like food, medicine, and pain relief by touching one of the large picture-based icons. After creating a few iterations of the software over the course of a year and testing in beta, the last stage of testing for a computer product, the trio will make the latest version of the app available in the iTunes store August 12.
“Our goal is to bridge the communication gap between patients and caregivers,” says Dougherty, CEO of Verbal Applications, the alums’ new company. “Patients will receive custom care faster, and hospitals will get money back in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements because of higher patient satisfaction scores.”
Verbal Care must be downloaded from the iTunes store and loaded onto an iPad. Once opened, the user is asked, “What would you like to say?” as nine icons pop up on the screen, among them “pain scale,” “food,” “bathroom,” and “entertainment.” Each category is subdivided into requests for certain types of food, for example, or a specific television station. Caregivers, who can receive the request on an iPad, can confirm requests with a “yes or no” module, and the app can also act as a rudimentary translation tool. Based on the needs of the patient, caregivers can add their own text, voice recordings, and images (“If the patient’s favorite food is Oreos, they can add that personal icon,” Zoeller says).
In addition to helping people who have trouble speaking, Verbal Care could one day make a difference for those with aphasia, a complex communication disorder caused most often by stroke. “Aphasia patients often mix up signals,” Hsiao says, “So our app has three different inputs, where they can see the pictures and icons, read the text, and hear audio feedback.”
After being challenged senior year to create a communications device by Theodore Morse, an ENG professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller designed the Verbal Care app as part of ENG’s electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department senior design project. The three, along with former teammates Kenneth Zhong (ENG ’12) and Kholood Al Tabash (ENG ’12), won the ECE department’s Entrepreneurial Award and second place at the ENG Societal Impact Capstone Project Awards last year.
After graduating, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller formed their own business venture. Their research, shadowing nurses and speech pathologists at Massachusetts General Hospital, revealed some similar devices targeted specifically for aphasia patients, ALS patients, and stroke victims, but with price tags upwards of $7,500. Verbal Care was designed as a far more affordable app for all types of communications disorders. Currently the app is free, but Dougherty says it may be priced at around $10 a month, or $99 a year. The three alums also learned the importance of user-friendly design, which they achieved by using hard contrast, brighter colors, and very simple icons for patients with lower visibility, Hsiao says.
CEO Dougherty continues to meet with speech language pathologists, nurses, and patients to better understand what they need from the product. He also develops relationships with potential investors and hunts for grants. Zoeller, the COO, deals with pricing and projects how much money they will need from investors to become profitable and in what areas they should spend their money. Chief technology officer Hsiao oversees the product’s infrastructure and technology.
This summer, the three quit their jobs as web developers and software engineers to focus full-time on their business. They had plenty of encouragement – Verbal Care was selected both for the School of Management’s 2013 ITEC New Venture Competition, taking the People’s Choice Award, and the MassChallenge, an annual $1 million global accelerator program, two start-up camps where they could get excellent advice from experienced mentors. And while that advice is certainly helpful, Dougherty says, one of the most important lessons was learned while he was still a student.
“You have to be able to totally burn what you have and start over,” says Dougherty, who also founded the popular campus nonprofit Project Mailbox. “We’ve done Verbal over maybe four times. Every time it’s like a phoenix, where it crumbles to ashes and then rises out of the flames. I think there’s a lot to learn from that, and that’s the benefit of being a younger entrepreneur.”
The latest version of Verbal Care will be launched in the iTunes store on August 12. Users can e-mail the company for more information.
-Amy Laskowski, BU Today