Innovation and creativity at second annual HackUConn

The annual HackUConn Hackathon took palce in the Next Gen hall makerspace. Student groups create presentations within a time frame of 24 hours around the topic of allergy. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Fifteen different teams and over 90 participants innovated their way to a better allergy solution at the University of Connecticut’s second annual hackathon HackUConn, a 24-hour engineering and business competition that ran from Friday night into Saturday evening at NextGen Hall.

Organized by the UConn Entrepreneurship and Innovation Society, each team of students was tasked with coming up with an innovative solution to people afflicted with allergies.

Each team was given access to NextGen’s MakerSpace, which included the use of 3D printers, thermoplastics, and about 24-hours to create a prototype and business model for an allergy-related invention, an effort which involved “Lots of coffee,” according to event organizer Justin Hall.

“The majority of people were here for the entire night,” said Hall, an eighth semester mechanical engineering major who founded UEIS, and who helped organize HackUConn in 2016.

After completing and planning a prototype, each team had to assemble a three minute presentation explaining the issue they were trying to fix, how their product fixed that solution, a demo of their product and the business and financial plan behind the product distribution.

The presentations were given before a panel of 15 judges, made up of UConn Engineering alumni and friends of the school recruited by Director of Engineering Heidi Douglas, (including Optum and the Keep Smilin 4 Abbie Foundation), rated the teams based on the solution idea, the innovation, product design and the presentation itself.

Prizes for the winners included Beat Studio Wireless Headphones, Amazon Echo Dots and a DJI Phantom 3 Drone, the latter of which was raffled off to students in the top three teams, Hall said.

The solutions themselves tackled different aspects of allergies, including prevention, detection of allergens and methods of response to an allergic reaction. One team presented their idea of a backpack air purifier; another designed an app that could scan for allergens in food ingredient lists.

A common theme in the presentations was creating a better EpiPen, especially based on cost and usability to allergy sufferers. A popular idea utilized by several teams was a wearable EpiPen in the design of a smartwatch, which allowed for a more transportable way to carry around an EpiPen.

“People like wearables,” said Daniel Toby, a second-semester management and engineering for manufacturing major, whose four-student team came up with the idea for the wearable EpiPen “EpiGo.”

“My brother has allergies, and he doesn’t carry (his EpiPen) around with him,” Toby said.

The EpiGo prototype looks like a regular smartwatch superficially, but contains a small injector and cartridge of norepinephrine within, according to the team’s presentation. The watch can be removed to manually dose the individual if they experience an allergic reaction, with GPS tracking built into the watch, which automatically altering emergency services in such an event.

“It’s really all about rapid idea creation,” said John Brindisi, a second-semester MEM major also on team “EpiGo.” “There was always someone working on it. It was a very good way to release our creativity.”

Hall said that UEIS chose allergies for this year’s theme because of the issue’s commonality, and because of the variety of aspects it covered.

“You’d think that allergies is a very narrow focus for a subject, but it’s very widespread and in need of innovation,” Hall said. “The larger goal (of HackUConn) is to apply innovation and class knowledge, and meet great people.”

Hall said that involvement in HackUConn has tripled since last year’s event, and that access to NextGen’s makerspace has played a large part in expanding the event.

“(We had an) above expected showup to the event. We’ve been happy to keep up with the demand,” Hall said. “(NextGen has) great resources for prototyping and brainstorming, a creative atmosphere and a spacious settings.”

The competing teams, said that HackUConn helped to further foster a creative atmosphere.

“I had so much fun. There was no stress at all,” said Vidyalaxmi Kandarpa, a second-semester biomedical engineering major, whose team designed a portable air filter for those who suffer from pollen allergies.

Overall, students received the event positively, Hall said.

“Everyone I spoke to … (is) really happy to apply these skills,” Hall said. “The UConn community is starting to see the value of innovation and entrepreneurship.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.