Innovation Challenge Nets $300,000 in Prizes

Issue Date: 
June 2, 2014

Three separate proposals on innovations to treat pressure wounds, monitor Parkinson’s symptoms, and support smoking cessation were each awarded $100,000 and project-management support in the University of Pittsburgh’s inaugural Pitt Innovation Challenge.

Known as PInCh, the Pitt Innovation Challenge is a community-wide competition intended to spark ideas about how to empower people to take control of their own health.

The contest’s winners were chosen May 19 at the University Club where 10 finalists presented their proposals to a panel of judges comprising five professionals from Pitt’s School of Medicine, the Schools of the Health Sciences, and UPMC. The competition was sponsored by Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute in collaboration with the University’s Office of the Provost and Innovation Institute.

One of the winning PInCh projects is Sealion bandages, which are bioactive and can close diabetic ulcer wounds 40 percent faster than regular bandages. The winning team consists of 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 bioengineering graduate students to create the watertight Sealion bandages, which use natural growth factors to aid the body’s healing process. The bandages can be self-administered at home once a week. The team’s four Pitt graduate students are Mirrah Almira, Chelsea Stowell, Noah Johnson, and Eric Jeffries.

A second winning project, QuitNinja, is a “context-aware mobile app to support self regulation” that focuses on smoking cessation. QuitNinja was developed by Ellen Beckjord, assistant professor of psychiatry, in collaboration with software developer Vignet Corp. The app, which potentially could be used for any unhealthy behavior, provides reinforcements for healthy behavior at times when unhealthy behavior is often triggered. In her proposal video, Beckjord said the award will be used to fine-tune the app’s predictive delivery method so it helps people when they need it most.

The third winning application, SPark, helps Parkinson’s patients manage complex medication schedules to curb debilitating symptoms, such as tremors, so they can stay independent longer. SPark uses sensors in a smartphone or smartwatch to determine when medication is needed and then alerts the patient. The project 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.

In this inaugural PInCh competition, more than 90 competitors submitted two-minute videos to introduce team members, define a health problem, and outline a creative solution. Each team was required to have a Pitt faculty member (from any department, at any level) as the leader/signatory. Additional team members could be students (graduate, undergraduate, professional, or postdoctoral), fellows, or people from the community beyond the University.

“We created PInCh to capitalize on the innovation buzz that we have been seeing on campus recently and to focus on problem solving. The first competition, which was about how to engage people in their own health outcomes, exceeded our expectations,” said Steven Reis, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, about the success of PInCh’s kick-off year. “Competitors pitched a broad range of very creative projects that addressed important clinical and public health challenges,” he noted.

In addition to the top prizes, $25,000 was awarded to three other teams selected by the panel for these projects: Circlebacks, a cloud-based application to decrease hospital readmissions; MedGuardian, a prescription notification system; and IOTAS, a peer-staffed text helpline for teens with sexual health questions.