Feature Stories

We Mean Business

Innovation Challenge winners offer innovative, marketable ideas
  • Computer Science PhD student Shiri Dori-Hacohen stands with Berthiaume Center staff and a large check replica.

“Each year, our students bring more creativity, passion, and skill to the UMass Innovation Challenge and this year’s pool was especially impressive.”

- Bill Wooldridge, Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship

Automated Controversy Detection, a startup business founded by computer science Ph.D. candidate Shiri Dori-Hacohen, earned top honors of $35,000 in seed money at the campus’s 2016 Innovation Challenge business plan competition.

Coordinated by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, an Isenberg-based initiative that promotes entrepreneurship across the UMass Amherst campus, the multi-stage Challenge, in its culminating event of the year, featured six student teams that vied for $65,000 in awards.

Powered by sophisticated machine learning algorithms, Automated Controversy Detection’s service automatically earmarks controversial topics in political, healthcare, and other domains by comparing information against multiple Web resources, including Wikipedia. Dori-Hacohen develops algorithms with fellow researchers in UMass Amherst’s Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval. They have received support from the National Science Foundation and Google.

The service, she noted, will allow consumers, companies, and other organizations—including news organizations—to detect false information. That, she said, will help them to figure out whether they are seeing only one side of a story—furthering both accuracy and an organization’s management of its reputation.

“A few years ago it wasn’t possible to detect controversial topics, and now our algorithms have advanced to the point where we can do this, and the applications are very exciting,” said Dori-Hacohen. “It is extremely encouraging to have our commercial idea validated by a panel of experienced judges and against stiff competition. We know women are underrepresented in the technology field in general, but the problem is greater among startup founders. As a woman in tech and a mother, it means the world to me to have the support to pursue this entrepreneurial direction and become a role model for other women in my field to found startup companies.”

Other Finalists Excel

Second-place honors and $20,000 in seed money went to GeneRisk, a software service that allows medical clinicians to detect neurodevelopmental disorders—notably, early indicators of autism. Medical professionals extract a patient’s saliva sample, which they send to a laboratory for gene sequencing and diagnosis. To date, diagnosis of such disorders has relied largely on questionnaires and trial-and-error treatment, despite advances in understanding complex genetic disorders, observed GeneRisk founder and Neuroscience and Behavior Ph.D. candidate Ajay Kumar.

A team of four mechanical engineering undergraduates—Jake Grenier, Daniel Miller, Alec McCabe, and Joseph Gifford—captured third place and $10,000 for their venture, Brobar, which aspires to manufacture a rackless Olympic squat bar that adapts as a multipurpose workout tool. The outcome of the team’s senior-year design project, the device requires 50% less space and reduces injuries by shifting the center of gravity from the customary shoulder height to hip level.

The competition honored three other finalists.  Glow (Abhishek Dwaraki, Ph.D. candidate in Electrical & Computer Engineering) marshals software defined networking to bring a Google Maps analog to networking. FSIA (Sydney Robinson undergraduate, McCormack Sport Management) aspires to bring insurance coverage to fantasy sports. And Lumme (Akshaya Shanmugam—Ph.D. candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Abhinav Parate, alumnus), deploys sensors to detect individual smoking patterns and recommend interventions.

Judges as Educators

Each finalist presented a three-minute project description, followed by twelve minutes of probing questions from the competition’s six judges. The judges—venture investors, legal experts, and entrepreneurs themselves—offered a wealth of perspectives grounded in business reality.  “What kind of company can you build around this service?” “Have you looked at analogous business models?” “What about customer privacy issues?” “How big is the market and how big will it be in three to five years?” “What are your manufacturing costs?” “Is your algorithm patentable?”

In their questions and advice, the judges excelled as enablers, critics, and educators, empowering the finalists and offering insights to them and their UMass audience.

About the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship

Headquartered in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship is a cross-campus network of scholars, innovators and entrepreneurs. The venture was established to support research, education and practice and facilitate the transformation of ideas into business realities.

Sources: Isenberg School of Management; UMass Amherst News Office