Innovations, Profound and Whimsical, Compete in Stanford Challenge

Earlier this month, Stanford University’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) wrapped up a six-month contest for Stanford students, faculty, and alumni. The group awarded US $150,000 in prizes to the best entrepreneurial ventures, the best social ventures, and the best products demonstrated in a design showcase. This year, AWAIR, a medical device company that builds more comfortable breathing apparatuses for intensive care units, won the top prize in the entrepreneurial category; Anjna Patient Education, a nonprofit that developed SMS and voice systems for mobile devices that encourage patients to take better care of their health, took the social category; and ALICE, an AI tool to help construction managers schedule the myriad elements of a project, won the best product design.

The first two categories are judged essentially on their ideas, as pitched to the judges in writing and in oral presentations. But in the final category, product design, the entrants had to build something and demonstrate it at a product showcase held at Stanford this week. I confess, I didn’t get to all 50 booths; I stayed away from things like personalized wedding marketplaces, collapsible clothes hangers, and magnetic hair clips. I instead focused on things with an electrical or computer engineering angle that seemed to either be particularly useful or particularly weird. That still left plenty to look at. My five favorites included a company that uses the heat from a cooking fire to charge a cell phone, one that is using image processing algorithms to take signals from an existing land mine detector (basically just beeps) and turn them into rough sketches of what is under the ground, a company that is making a simple Bluetooth speaker sound much better than it seems like it should for the size and price by taking a room's acoustics into account, an activity tracker that lets pets get into the quantified self game, and a bracelet to let folks reach out and literally touch someone across the ether.

Flamestower. In the developing world, many people own cell phones and other mobile devices, but don’t have ready access to electricity, paying exhorbitant rates at commercial charging stations in order to use their mobile devices. Flamestower’s founders took a look at that problem, and figured out that what people in those situations all have are cooking fires. So they designed a deceptively simple gizmo to turn that cooking heat into electricity. It only generates 2.5 watts, but that’s enough to charge a cell phone through the built in USB connection. Founder Adam Kell plans to market the gadget for $15 in the developing world, but thinks he’ll also find a market for a $60 version designed for campers in the developed world.

Red Lotus Technologies. Non-profit companies have been working for years to improve land mine detection technology, and progress has been incremental. These days, handheld detectors use electromagnetic fields or radar to look for mines. They typically respond with beeps—much like a metal detector used by the beachcombers you’ll see wearing earphones as they hunt for coins and jewelry. That’s helpful, but beeps are not a lot of information to give users a clear idea of whether or not they’ve come upon a land mine or an innocuous scrap of something.  Red Lotus Technologies, started by Lahiru Jayatilaka, a computer science Ph.D. student on leave, has figured out a way to translate the information picked up by an existing land mine detector from beeps into a rough visualization displayed on a mobile devices. The sketch it comes up with isn’t richly detailed, but provides vastly more information than simple sounds.

TipTop Speakers. Alex Walker, founder of Tip Top Speakers, gives a good demo. And he may have a winning product. Okay, Bluetooth speakers are nothing new. But he says he’s packed top speaker components into a unique package—a pyramid-like shape that fits perfectly into the corner of the room. His $250 speakers mount magnetically to brackets that screw into the wall; the speakers then hide the mount. Putting it in the corner like this, Walker says, increases the sound by 15 decibels, because the speaker is designed to take advantage of the way the corner reflects the sound into the room.

Pawprint. Folks in Silicon Valley joke about weird imaginary twists on technology, like “Pandora for cats.” Pawprint has what looks to me like “Fitbit for dogs,” but swears its no joke. And I have to say, knowing more than a few dog-lovers, I think they’re on to something. Pawprint has put an activity tracker along with a wi-fi module in a dog collar, and built software that lets dog owners monitor their dogs’ activities, in real time or after the fact. Knowing that his dog is spending the day sleeping, the Pawprint founders anticipate, will allow the owner to schedule an extra long walk in the evening. Knowing that his dog is spending the day leaping rambunctiously around the house will perhaps reassure the owner that his dog is having fun—or worry that the dog is trashing the place. Pawprint will be launching on Kickstarter this month, and shipping the $150 products this fall.

Tickle. Text messages and e-mails are just such a cold way to let someone know you’re thinking of them. That’s a problem for millennials in long distance relationships that startup Tickle is trying to solve. Now, folks my age might think that a short phone call—you know, the kind where you actually talk to someone—might be the ticket to long-distance romantic bliss, but my teens have made it quite clear to me, nobody talks on the phone anymore. Tickle thinks the way to better connect across the Internet or cell phone networks is through touch, in the form of a leather band with sensors and micromechanical devices that simulate the touch of a hand, either a stroke or a gentle squeeze. They plan to sell paired bands for $50 to $80 each; no word on what happens when a couple breaks up. Can you re-pair your band with someone else's? Or do you need to ask for your band back?

Photo, top: Flamestarter's cell phone charger. Credit: Tekla Perry

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Tekla Perry
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