Student Inventors Reap Praise and Funding at NJIT Innovation Day

A winning TechQuest team with sponsor James Stevenson.

A device to diagnose and monitor glaucoma, biological scaffolds that promote the regrowth of neural tissue, and equipment to sterilize medical equipment with UV light were some of the projects to win prizes and funding at the 2015 NJIT Innovation Day, the annual showcase of cutting-edge student research, design and development.

The event – now in its third year – brings together the university’s key undergraduate programs and competitions designed to give students hands-on experiences that will help them become researchers and innovators with the know-how, technical savvy and experience to identify and address important unmet societal needs.

Anthony SanFilippo ’15*, a biomedical engineering major from Landing, won the top prize – and $2,000 – in the TechQuest undergraduate invention competition for his glaucoma device. He noted that while treatment for the condition is widely available, detection and monitoring still lag. 

“We’re hoping to improve on the status quo so that fewer people lose their eyesight,” he said.

Sahitya Allam*, a first-year student from Gainesville, Va. who is in NJIT’s accelerated medical program, won second place – and $1,000 - for her neural regeneration project, while a team of four biomedical engineering students won third place – and $500 – for their sterilization device. The team includes Cristian Marcel ’15*, of East Setauket, N.Y., Megan Dellavalle ’15*, of Santa Rosa, Calif., Michael Gendy ’15, of Holmdel, N.J., and Maryam Haque ’15*, of Edison, N.J.

TechQuest’s sponsor, James Stevenson, a retired Honeywell scientist and consultant at Stevenson PolyTech LLC, also provides four $3,000 stipends for contest winners and finalists who choose to continue their research over the summer.Some of the presenters in other categories had already won funding through their programs.

 “This is an important milestone in your lives and careers,” said Fadi Deek, NJIT’s provost and senior executive vice president, who stressed the value NJIT places on the research and real-world problem-solving its students conduct outside of the classroom. “The competencies that employers look for are innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, which is what you’re doing right here.”

“As I walk around the room I see more women participating than men and that’s a good thing,” Deek noted of the exhibitors. “This is very important for our country, where women make up slightly more than half of college graduates, but only about a quarter of the workforce in STEM fields.”

Gordon Thomas, a physics professor who mentored the first and third place winners in the TechQuest contest, said it was gratifying to see his students "tackle one challenge after the next, working through them methodically without eureka moments until their devices began to work, and getting better and better in the lab as a result."

"As a teacher, it doesn't get better than this," added Thomas, who regularly advises student researchers from his own and other departments.

Altogether, more than 40 student projects – from a drowsy-driving detection system, to an aerial seeding device for reforestation, to cancer prediction through bioinformatics – were on display this year.

“This number represents an all-time high for Innovation Day, which now includes finalists from five different research competitions,” said Atam Dhawan, interim vice provost for research and development. “As we continue to add new programs to support and promote undergraduate research, the event expands.”

Indeed, Michael Ehrlich, a professor of management, and Judith Sheft, associate vice president for technology development, announced at the event that they had just received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund teams of students, professors and industry mentors seeking to commercialize the technologies they are developing.

Keynote speaker Edmund Bishop, the associate director of analytical development for the Summit-based pharmaceutical company Celgene Corporation, gave students at the event an insider’s perspective on that process with a riveting account of the rigorous, multi-step process for bringing new treatments to market, as well as a history of the “breathtaking” medical advances that have changed lives over the past century.

The first step, he noted, is innovation – “the spirit of discovery.”

In addition to TechQuest, this NJIT programs included at this year’s Innovation Day included:

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which helps students compete for awards for their research presentations and enroll in graduate programs.

The Undergraduate Research and Innovation Program, which enables students to become researchers and to select projects that will address societal problems, enhance our quality of life, and contend with global challenges.

The Student Innovation Acceleration Club, which gives students the forum to develop business concepts utilizing a lean start-up methodology.

The Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge, a collaboration between NJIT and Capital One Bank, which aims to ignite business development in Newark by empowering budding entrepreneurs.

*member of the Albert Dorman Honors College

By Tracey Regan