ECE Team, Verbal, Wins People’s Choice Award at ITEC Competition


Story written by Rachel Harrington

The makers of Verbal present at the ITEC Pitch & Pizza Competition. Pictured from left to right are Gregory Zoeller (ECE'12), Eric Hsiao (ECE'12) and Nick Dougherty (ECE'12). (Photo by Sonia Su.)
The makers of Verbal present at the ITEC Pitch & Pizza Competition. Pictured from left to right are Gregory Zoeller (ECE'12), Eric Hsiao (ECE'12) and Nick Dougherty (ECE'12). (Photo by Sonia Su.)

It’s not uncommon to find hospital patients unable to speak to their nurses and doctors as a result of language barriers or speech-debilitating medical issues.

Three alumni—Nick Dougherty, Eric Hsiao and Gregory Zoeller (all ECE’12)—have been working to solve that problem with the creation of an app called Verbal that allows patients to communicate with picture-based icons. By touching one of the images, patients can let their nurses know that they require help, whether they need water or want to use the restroom.

In April the team presented their app at the Boston University Institute of Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization (ITEC) New Venture Competition. The alumni competed against nearly four dozen teams and took home the People’s Choice Award, which included a $1,000 cash prize.

“This was a great experience for us,” said Dougherty. “Other than a few courses at BU, we don’t have a lot of business experience yet. By participating, we were able to get a lot of helpful feedback about our business strategy.”

The initial idea for Verbal stemmed from a Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering senior project with Professor Emeritus Theodore Morse (ECE, MSE) and won both the ECE Entrepreneurial Award and College of Engineering Societal Impact Capstone Project award last year. Since then the three alumni have shadowed nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital and perfected their design.

“For us, the main focus of Verbal is helping people,” said Dougherty. “Competitions like ITEC’s are helping us move closer toward that goal.”

Verbal was up against some tough competition at ITEC. Cellanyx Diagnostics, a startup that aims to improve results for prostate cancer patients by combining nanomedicine and predictive diagnostics, took the top prize. Cellanyx has used proprietary matrix biology, microfluidics and nanomedicine to provide quantitative, live-cell, in vitro diagnostic service to physicians and hospitals. The team is made up of Brad Hogan (GRS’13), Kevin Yu (BME’10) and Jonathan Varsanik.

“Coming from a scientific background, it really helped to come to ITEC and learn more about the business side,” said Hogan.

As part of the win, Cellanyx receives $20,000 rental credit from Cummings Properties to provide a space for their business as well as legal advice from WilmerHale and many additional mentoring opportunities.

Additional winners at the ITEC competition included the second place team, ScanKart, and third place team, Aeolus Building Efficiency. ScanKart is an integrated mobile commerce and marketing platform for businesses designed by Kavita Mehta (GSM’12), Guarav Tanna (GSM’13), Okeno Palmer and Guarav Mehta. Aeolus, developed by David Cushman (GSM’14), Jonathan Ellermann (GSM’13), Benjamin Smith (GSM’13), Ryan Cruz (ME’13), Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, MSE, SE) and former Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME), provides software-based optimization of airflow in large commercial office buildings.