Health Innovation Contest Puts “Best Talent on Display”

Issue Date: 
December 8, 2014

Alexander Star, an accomplished professor and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, was feeling the pressure as he and his team appeared before a panel of judges to describe the concept for a sensor that could help people with diabetes monitor their health.

The stakes in the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) were high—winning project teams would get $100,000 to further develop their innovation. 

The PInCh contest—sponsored by Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Office of the Provost, and the Innovation Institute—challenged entrants to answer the question, “From cell to community: How can we individualize solutions for better health(care)?”

More than 60 teams submitted video entries describing their potential solutions. Among the proposed ideas were products ranging from a screening test for metabolic disorders in hard-to-treat depression to a computer app for tracking the mental status of psychiatric patients. Ultimately, the pool was narrowed to 10 finalists, including the Star team’s proposal for Nanoketo, a small portable sensor to monitor ketosis, a problematic condition common in diabetics in which the body uses fat instead of sugar for energy.

“It has been a pleasure and a treat to see what people are submitting,” said John Maier, director of PInCh and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, Pitt School of Medicine. “These are really creative teams and it speaks to the level of achievement at the University of Pittsburgh and in Pittsburgh itself. The best talent is on display.”

Ultimately, Star, who is an associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering, and his team won one of three $100,000 prizes awarded on Nov. 12 during the contest’s final judging held in Pitt’s University Club.

“I was really impressed with the entire process and the level of competition,” said Star. “Doing the presentation was almost like the TV show Shark Tank, because it was nerve-wracking. But I’m very humbled, and it was a great opportunity for our grad students.”

Star’s team included David Finegold, professor of pediatrics and human genetics, as well as graduate students James Ellis, Sean Hwang, and Gregory Morgan in the Department of Chemistry. Star said the award money will be applied toward developing a handheld sensor prototype.

The other $100,000 winning projects were:

Nebukin, an electronic tablet-based software tool to help children properly use nebulizers, which deliver drugs through an inhalable mist, to treat asthma. Developers are a team from the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine and the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, as well as the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering. Timothy Corcoran, a team member and an associate professor of medicine and bioengineering, said the software is a game that guides children through breathing patterns that enable a nebulizer to administer an optimal amount of the drug. 

ACL Interaction: a web-based tool that uses motion sensors to individualize the rehabilitation of ACL injuries of the knee. Developers are a team from Swanson’s Department of Bioengineering and the medical school’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery. Michael McClincy, a resident in orthopedic surgery, said the invention measures the angle of a patient’s knee and helps assess how the patient’s body is reacting during physical rehab, allowing doctors to determine if they are employing the correct therapy.

In addition, four teams were awarded $25,000 each to further their projects: 

PediaTristan: Educational video series for pediatric patients and families.

Psychometabolomics: A screening test for metabolic disorders in hard-to-treat depression.

Caring for Cancer Survivors at the Virtual Bedside: Web-based communication for medical teams of childhood cancer survivors.

MAGIC (Medication Adherence using in clinic): App using passive and active data to track mental status of psychiatric patients.

Steven E. Reis, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, termed PInCh “a celebration of the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of some of the brightest, most enterprising teams of visionary thinkers in and around the Pittsburgh region.” 

“This approach is leading to the implementation of some amazing ideas,” added Reis, who is also an associate vice chancellor for clinical research, Pitt schools of the health sciences, and a professor of medicine.

The inaugural PInCh contest was held in May, when three projects were awarded $100,000 prizes and three teams received $25,000.

Finalist and semi-finalist videos for the November contest can be viewed on the PInCh web site: