coronavirus creations

College students design COVID-19 innovations at Rice University competition

The winners of the hackathon included a contact tracing tool for schools, a soap dispenser to promote handwashing, a virus-killing filter, and more. Photo via Rice University Public Relations

As fall creeps closer, the need for a safe way to reopen schools becomes more and more dire. A team of Rice University students created a software that might help on that front.

SchoolTrace, a software that uses the schedules of students and faculty for COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, won top honors in the 2020 Rice Design-A-Thon, which took place July 17 to 19 online this year due to the pandemic. The hackathon was planned to be held in person during the fall semester, but organizers moved up the date to focus on coronavirus solutions. Twenty-three teams — comprised of 116 undergraduate competitors — participated.

"We wanted to provide students with a meaningful summer opportunity and the potential for a significant public health impact," says Carrigan Hudgins, a Sid Richardson College senior and co-coordinator, in a news release. "At one point, we considered cancelling, but hosting it virtually instead actually allowed us to reach a broader base of students across Texas and out of state."

SchoolTrace and its contact tracing tech that doesn't raise privacy concerns with tracking sensors or mobile phone apps took the $1,000 first price. Justin Cheung, Nick Glaze, Mit Mehta, Tyler Montague and Huzaifah Shamim — all juniors majoring in electrical and computer engineering — also received $500 for excelling in the digital age of health care track.

The teams that came in second and third place received $800 and $600, respectively, and the winners of each of the three design tracks also scored $500. The prizes were sponsored by Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice's student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium.

Aside from the cash prizes, the students also received valuable guidances and feedback from industry experts.

"Having the judges and our team vouch for the actual solution, when we can propose it to different competitions and incubators around Texas and the country, is more important than the cash prizes," says co-coordinator Franklin Briones, a Brown College senior who competed in previous design-a-thons at Rice. Briones and Hudgins co-coordinated this year's event with Wiess College senior Eric Torres.

Here were the other award-winning innovations to come out of the program:

  • Second place and pediatric track winner — "Team SARS Wars: A New Hope." The team created a soap dispenser attachment that plays music and rewards children with stickers if they wash their hands for 20 seconds. Team members included: Anyssa Castorina, Aman Eujayl, Diego Lopez-Bernal, Janet Lu, Rubén Sebastián Marroquín, and Belén Szentes, all sophomores from Rice.
  • Third place — "The (d^3x/dt^3)(s)." COV-COM is a wall-mounted filtration system that catches and kills COVID-19 created by a team of juniors and seniors from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Team members included: Olivia Garza, Juan Herrera, Frida Montoya, Aishwarya Sathish, Samantha Strahan, and Morgan Struthers.
  • Global health track winner — "The Duncaroo Designers." The team from Rice created affordable desk partitions that could be used in schools with limited funds. Team members included: senior Rachel Bui and sophomores Jacob Duplantis, Charlie Gorton, Andrei Mitrofan, Anh Nguyen, and Vivian Wong.

Each of the teams were tasked Friday (July 17) evening with the prompt to "design and present a solution (either a product or a method) to address the treatment, prevention or non-medical related needs of the COVID-19 pandemic." Final presentations took place final presentations Sunday afternoon.

"The needs-finding for those problems was the most cumbersome part," Briones says in the release. "Not because it's hard to find problems, but because COVID-19 is so continually changing. It was hard to find which problem was the most important one."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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