VCU students pitch innovative ideas to improve health, education and energy

From right: Tiffany Green, Ph.D., Ashley Williams, Maria Gonzalez, and Jessy Lemus
A team of students in the lab of Tiffany Green, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy (right), is working on an app for low-income pregnant Latinx women. From right: Ashley Williams, a sociology master’s degree student; Maria Gonzalez, a junior biology major; and Jessy Lemus, a freshman international social justice major. Not pictured are VCU student team members Maryam Azeem and Muloongo Simuzingili. (Courtesy photo)

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs

To help low-income Latinx women more easily access prenatal care, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University students is designing an app that would allow them to communicate with a medical provider. The women also could use the app to access health information via educational videos on topics such as nutrition, blood pressure and antepartum depression.

“Low-income women face a lot of barriers to prenatal care,” said Maria Gonzalez, a junior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “For example, many low-income women have trouble when it comes to making sure they can attend prenatal care appointments because of a lack of transportation. So part of our idea is that [the app] would have a HIPAA-compliant messaging system where they could say, ‘I’m having this symptom or this complication. Do I need to come in?’”

Gonzalez and other team members work in the lab of Tiffany Green, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine, who specializes in maternal and child health disparities, migration and how discrimination informs the immigrant experience and acts on individual health outcomes.

“I’m interested in trying to understand the causes and consequences of racial, ethnic and nativity disparities in maternal and child health,” Green said. “And so everything kind of came together with this challenge.”

The team’s app concept was among the winners of VCU’s inaugural Innovation Challenges competition organized by the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The VCU-wide competition asked teams of students to compete for $10,000 in prizes and services by proposing ideas that would answer questions related to health, education and energy.

Specifically, the challenge questions asked: How can technology improve outcomes in K-12 and higher education? Are there new business models, products or services that would enable, incentivize or drive the use of electric transportation and mobility solutions in Virginia? And how can emerging technologies — such as the “internet of things,” virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence — improve the health of the Richmond community and beyond?

Each of the three challenge areas were nominated by Richmond-area businesses and organizations, including Cherry Bekaert, Dominion Energy, New Economy Thinker Community-Virginia Chapter, the MacLaurin Group and VCU Health.

A total of 103 teams submitted ideas, with 52 submitted to the medical challenge.

A panel of VCU faculty, staff and industry experts picked the most promising ideas. Three winners were selected from each category.

Each winning team will be offered acceptance into VCU’s Pre-X program, which is run by the da Vinci Center and aims to identify, support and launch high-growth and high-potential student-led startups. Each team also won $500 in funding for prototyping and further development of its idea.

“The hope is that they can get an early start connecting with mentors and have the necessary early funding to move their idea forward,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center. “It was exciting to see how many ideas and ventures students are actively pursuing on their own and that Innovation Challenges gave them an outlet to showcase their efforts and innovations.”

In addition to the prenatal app for low-income Latinx mothers-to-be, the health category’s winners included: a search tool and educational app that connects people in need to community resources such as food pantries, emergency shelters, transportation services, finance counselors and more; and a system that tracks a person’s medication schedule, allowing them to access their medication history and refill status, send out refill requests, and receive alerts about when to take medication.

For the education category, the winning teams included a VR/AR simulation that helps users learn and practice a foreign language; a proposal to launch an e-sports league in Virginia high schools; and a virtual reality program that could be used to reduce bullying behavior among children.

Brett Bowker, a senior studying marketing product and brand management in the School of Business, was part of the VR bullying intervention team.

“We place the viewer in a virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Rift or Oculus Go,” Bowker said. “In the simulation, the viewer plays the role of a bully, the victim or, in many cases, a bystander. This allows them to make choices and impact the interactive narrative, and see the effect of their actions. Additionally, this allows a proctor or counselor to observe their choices and provide additional training or resources as needed.”

Bowker’s team is developing a third iteration of the project in a workspace at Center for the Creative Economy in the School of the Arts. The team’s concept originated as a class project for the da Vinci Center’s human-centered design certificate program.

“In the future, we hope to expand into other areas beyond bullying — like empathy training in the workplace,” Bowker said. “We are also working on our Lighthouse Labs summer cohort application, where we could be granted $20,000 in equity-free funding to launch this as a sustainable company.”

For the energy category, the winning teams pitched concepts such as: a surge protector that informs a user how much electricity they are using; a build-it-yourself event to build an electric vehicle; and Hyperloop, an all-electric, high-speed form of transportation in which people would travel in pods through a tunnel system.

Hyperloop at VCU began in September 2017 with more than 40 undergraduate students from engineering, business, arts and humanities and sciences. The team went on to be one of only 20 finalists, and one of just nine from the United States, to advance to the 2018 Hyperloop finals at SpaceX headquarters in California.

Westlake said the inaugural Innovation Challenges competition was an overall success and showcased the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of VCU’s student body.

“The 2018 Innovation Challenges program demonstrated, once again, that VCU students are multidimensional and active problem solvers,” he said. “The da Vinci Center continues to explore new offerings that provide greater access and opportunity for students to share their ideas, solve problems and foster innovation.”