Innovation Challenge Launches Second Health Care Idea Contest

Issue Date: 
September 8, 2014

What if you were trying to quit smoking and someone—or something—could predict when you would crave a cigarette? And, rather than having to sweat out that craving alone, imagine you had perfectly timed encouraging words or tips for avoiding smoking.

QuitNinja, one of three winners of last May’s inaugural Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh), is a “context-aware mobile app to support self regulation” that will basically do just that. Ellen Beckjord, a Pitt assistant professor of psychiatry, developed the app with software developer Vignet Corporation; the $100,000 prize from PInCh has allowed Beckjord and her team to move the app to clinical testing. The team hopes for a public release at the end of this year.

PInCh is a creative, community-wide competition to spark fresh ideas that empower people to take control of their health. It is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the University’s Office of the Provost, and Pitt’s Innovation Institute.

The innovation behind QuitNinja and its development speed are exactly what PInCh wants to encourage, says PInCh Director John Maier. “We want the participants to get their ideas into the greater community. They do a great job in their fields with their academic work. We want to try to find ways to get that out more broadly. How could this become a product? How could this impact real people as opposed to just research?”

QuitNinja’s Beckjord saw PInCh as “a really good fit for the work that I’m doing.” She likes the collaborative nature of the contest, which is open to Pitt faculty, staff, and students as well as the larger Pittsburgh community. Each team must have at least one Pitt faculty member. Participants are encouraged to reach outside of the University and also within—across campuses, schools, and disciplines, drawing together a range of ideas and ways of thinking.

PInCh recently launched its second challenge, which asks: “From cell to community: How can we individualize solutions for better health(care)?” Initial entries, which are due Sept. 15, must be two-minute videos about the proposed innovation. Submissions will be judged on the importance of the problem addressed as well as the creativity and feasibility of the proposed solution.

This challenge aims to offer multiple funding awards, ranging between $25,000 and $100,000 in direct costs. Maier, who is director of research and an assistant professor in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine, says project-management assistance is also provided for each winner to guide the team “in terms of intellectual property [as well as] training in business and commercial experience.”

The contest was conceived when Maier and Steven Reis, director of Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, were looking to generate even more enthusiasm for innovation here at the University of Pittsburgh. “We wanted to get new people together, says Maier.”

But there’s also something bigger at stake than ideas, which are admittedly pretty big stakes. “This is a way for the University to meet its role: we have to educate people, we have to invent new things, we have to support the community that supports us,” Maier says. “We’re integrating students and faculty and trying to help move them forward.”

To create the different challenges, the PInCh team interviews faculty members in various disciplines. The challenges’ funding comes from the Office of the Provost as well as from a National Institutes of Health grant, which keeps the contest geared toward health-related topics.

The inaugural competition drew more than 90 teams. Along with QuitNinja, two other winning projects received $100,000 each: Sealion bandages, which use natural growth factors to heal wounds more quickly, and SPark, a sensor system that helps Parkinson’s patients manage complex medication schedules. The Sealion team comprised Yadong Wang, the William Kepler Whiteford Professor in Bioengineering, who partnered with Sandeep Kathju, medical director of UPMC Wound Healing Services of UPMC Passavant, and four Pitt bioengineering graduate students. SPark was a collaborative effort between UPMC, engineers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, a Pittsburgh digital health startup company, and patients from the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

For this newest challenge, the final competition event—in which teams pitch their projects to a panel of judges—will take place Nov. 12.