From Snake Detection to Water Purification, Tech Launch Arizona Supports Student Solutions to Real-World Problems

Eller team developing a gaming headband for the hearing-impaired. From the left: Max Santamaria, Hannah Simons, Vinith Nair, Lily Andress, and Mark Fariello (Not pictured: Taylor Reusser). Photo courtesy of Max Santamaria.

A team of Eller College students is developing a gaming headband for the hearing impaired. From the left: Max Santamaria, Hannah Simons, Vinith Nair, Lily Andress, and Mark Fariello. (Not pictured: Taylor Reusser.)

Courtesy of Max Santamaria

Tech Launch Arizona, the office that commercializes inventions stemming from University of Arizona research, has awarded funding to five student teams to develop inventions into products that benefit society. Through its second Student Innovation Challenge, TLA is continuing its series of competitions to engage students in innovation and commercialization.

"We're giving students the chance to see their innovative ideas become reality," said Rakhi Gibbons, director of licensing for TLA. "But in a much bigger sense, we're introducing them to the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, and helping them see if their passions can have impact on the world."

The competition is designed to give students the chance to experience entrepreneurship and expose them to future opportunities they might not otherwise pursue.

The judges for the competition included TLA personnel and external commercialization experts, including Charlene Grabowski, the recently retired vice president and general manager of GE Healthcare, and serial entrepreneur and author Allen Freed, both of whom also serve as TLA Commercialization Partners, advising UArizona inventors and startups.

Of the 26 applications received, five were selected for funding, with teams awarded a total of approximately $40,000 to develop their ideas into prototypes.

All the Better to Sssssee You With

Antonio Tavera-Reyes, a triple major in systems engineering, statistics and data science, and Spanish, had a harrowing, yet common, Sonoran Desert experience over the summer. When he went outside to his recycling bin one night, he found a Western Diamondback rattlesnake inches from his foot.

Antonio Tavera-Reyes

Antonio Tavera-Reyes

As his heart rate returned to normal, he thought of several family members who work outdoors in landscaping. Tavera-Reyes saw this as a problem and an opportunity.

"I had the idea to create a mobile application, which could be used to monitor and detect, in real time, the presence of snakes," he wrote in his application. "I began this idea with a preliminary project by modeling and then developing the software with machine learning using TensorFlow API, Google Colab notebooks, GDrive, 500 image snake data set and Python."

Tavera-Reyes plans to use the TLA funding to create a fully working model of the mobile application.

"It would be so gratifying to be able to distribute this software to communities around the world that face struggles with venomous snakes, manufacturing antivenom and sparse medical accessibilities," Tavera-Reyes said.

Get Your Head in the Game

A team of students from the Eller College of Management – all gamers – knew that making games accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing is a challenge for developers and the gaming industry.

"Gamers with disabilities are overlooked in the gaming industry in areas like game and controller design," entrepreneurship students Max Santamaria, Hannah Simons, Mark Fariello, Vinith Nair and Lily Andress wrote in their application. "Our solution allows people with hearing disabilities to play competitive games without any disadvantages."

The team proposed a lightweight headband with 360-degree vibration capabilities that allows users to feel the directional source of sound cues. The planned prototype will combine a lightweight headband with sensors and vibrators – and the software to integrate it all.

Bringing the Outside In

Sara Ghaemi

Sara Ghaemi

In her application, Sara Ghaemi, a graduate student at the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, proposed building an algae-based biosystem capable of heating, cooling and purifying indoor air. Her idea for an "algae heat-sink and air purifier" involves creating systems to grow algae that can be integrated into indoor features such as benches or other furniture.

In her proposal, she wrote that introducing nature into the built environment can help decrease the need for mechanical systems, lower a building's energy consumption and, in the bigger picture, help sequester carbon dioxide and mitigate global warming.

Water and Power Where They're Needed Most

In places like the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, access to clean water and electricity represents an ongoing challenge. A team of graduate students proposed developing a household system that simultaneously produces renewable energy and purifies water, while leveraging sustainable, low-maintenance technologies.

Abolhassan Mohammadi Fathabd

Abolhassan Mohammadi Fathabd

For families with poor access to such resources, a system like this could be invaluable.

The team proposed creating a unit that consists of a solar panel, a battery, a pump and a water nanofiltration membrane. Based on their calculations, the team members estimate that they can develop a system that produces and stores between one and five kilowatts of electricity and purifies between 25 and 150 gallons of water daily.

Team members include Abolhassan Mohammadi Fathabd, who is studying systems and industrial engineering; Christopher Yazzie, who is studying environmental engineering; and Georgina Torrandell Haro, who is working toward her graduate degree in medical pharmacology and studying at the Eller College of Management.

Making Waves in Tissue Culture

Jack Tran

Jack Tran

We've all seen the way loud sounds can create ripples on a liquid surface. Jack Tran, a student in cellular and molecular medicine, asked the question: What if we could use that effect to create better tissue culture surfaces in the lab?

Tissue cultures are traditionally created on flat surfaces, such as a petri dish. But tissues grow in three dimensions. While 3D molds are available for this purpose, Tran proposed creating a novel platform that uses acoustics to tune gel-based growth platforms to provide a textured environment where cells can grow and propagate.

With the TLA funding, he plans to acquire raw materials and use sound waves to create the 3D surfaces in gels, and work toward developing a method to reproduce them efficiently and economically.