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Entrepreneurship flourishes at second Summer B-Lab

Student ventures include apps to help the homeless, automated clothing designed for the elderly

This summer, 38 students split into 16 teams flocked to the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts to participate in the Summer Breakthrough Lab, a program for entrepreneurship, said Jason Harry, associate professor of the practice of engineering.

In the program, which launched last year, participants met with mentors, attended educational sessions and developed their ventures over an eight-week period. This year, the program was relatively selective, as over 100 students representing 40 ventures applied, and only about a third were accepted, Harry said.

Student ventures ranged from Technologies Against Assault, which aimed to incorporate biotechnology into rape kits to aid victims of sexual assault, to Doodle Buns, which produced “artisanal buns made with a special flour mix on the outside, with creative and delicious fillings on the inside,” according to the program’s website.

“From an operational standpoint, (B-Lab) was a huge success,” Harry said.

Students used B-Lab to explore projects based on their passions. For example, Brittany Cohen ’17.5, along with Amily He, a master’s student at the Rhode Island School of Design, created Kinetic Clothing — a clothing line designed with automatic closures meant to help the elderly dress themselves, Cohen said. The idea stemmed from Cohen’s interests in fashion and sustainability and He’s passion for helping the elderly, Cohen added.

Other students participated in B-Lab to expand upon existing projects. Michelle Peterson ’18 and Eric Bai ’15.5 MD ’20 used B-Lab to refine their three-year-old project called TextUp, a communication software meant to aid case managers at agencies that serve the homeless, Peterson said. Bai came up with the idea for TextUp after interning in Kenya with a company that created text message-based software and wanted to incorporate that technology to solve problems in the United States, she added.

Another team composed of Skander Jabbes MD ’16, Nikhil Arora MD ’16 GS and Idil Oksuz MD ’16 developed  Artistery, an app that provides users with a database of works in museums and art galleries from around the world. Users can connect their phones to high-definition displays — such as televisions or digital frames ­— to project different canvases of art.

“We want to change the way people interact with art,” Jabbes said.

The team developed the app after receiving an assignment for a class in the Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, a fifth-year master’s program that combines business with engineering. As part of the assignment, the group had to combine organic LED technology with art to create a project.

The students lauded the mentorship aspect of the program, as teams had access to lawyers, investors and other professionals with entrepreneurship experience. Around 50 mentors provided approximately 400 hours of support, Harry said.

“The answer was always there,” Jabbes said. “The people at B-Lab eliminated our roadblocks.”

Besides mentorship, students were also provided with a stipend that allowed them to commit fully to the program without having to get part-time jobs, a benefit the students especially appreciated, Peterson said.

After the eight weeks, teams were left with different prospects for their ventures.

The creators of TextUp hope to license their software as an official nonprofit, expand into Massachusetts and pilot version 2.5 of their software this fall, Peterson said. The team at Artistery has started a crowdfunding page to procure support for its app, Jabbes said.

On the other hand, the path forward is less clear for Kinetic Clothing. Though the team arrived at B-Lab with a concrete concept, after speaking with people who serve the elderly, they realized the automatic closures may seem too futuristic, Cohen said. After pursuing different ideas throughout the summer — such as clothing that shifts by itself so the elderly, who are often sedentary, can avoid bedsores — Cohen will not be pursuing her B-Lab Project.

B-Lab “ended up being a great challenge. It made me aware of how research works and how to explore different ideas,” she said.

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