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Creators of wearable tech for visually impaired win ASU Innovation Open

Somatic Labs gets $100,000 to produce wearable tech for visually impaired.
April 2, 2017

Three entrepreneurs say they have 230 preorders for Moment device

Three young men who met five years ago as Flinn Scholars and launched an entrepreneurial venture won $100,000 on Sunday to fund their project, which makes wearable technology for people with visual impairments.

Shantanu Bala and Ajay Karpur, both graduates of Arizona State University, and Jacob Rockland, a senior at the University of Arizona, created Somatic Labs, which won the first ASU Innovation Open competition this past weekend. The three met during networking events for winners of the Flinn Scholarship, a prestigious, merit-based program for Arizona high school graduates to attend one of the three state universities.

The $100,000 investment will get the team closer to filling orders for Moment, their wristband device that uses “haptic,” or touch, technology to turn information into finely tuned vibrations.

The competition began last year with 33 student-led teams applying from several states and was narrowed to 15 semifinalists in February. The finalists pitched at Sunday’s “Final Four Demo Day” event, held at the Beus Center for Law and Society at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. The contest was sponsored by Avnet, which donated the prize money, and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. Additional sponsors were Draper University, Zero Mass Water, Hool Coury Law and SRP.

The other ASU team that was a finalist, Swift Coat, won the $10,000 SRP Innovation Award. Swift Coat, a delivery system for nanoparticle coatings, similar to an aerosol spray nozzle, was launched by Zak Holman, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, and Peter Firth, a PhD student at ASU. They’ve already drawn $3 million in federal funding and also won the $45,000 New Venture Challenge at ASU last year.

The other two finalists were RepWatch, made of three students from California Lutheran University, and Nunami Labs, created by three University of Arizona students. RepWatch created a platform and wearable device to enhance physical therapy for patients. Nunami Labs is developing 360-degree sensors for driverless cars.

All four teams won $5,000 for advancing to the final round.

Bala, a 2014 graduate who double majored in psychology and computer science, and Karpur, a 2016 grad in electrical engineering, worked at ASU’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing on projects to help people with disabilities. Somatic Labs came directly out of that experience.

“A lot of what we were doing day to day was working with people who were blind or visually impaired, and a lot of them were ASU students,” Karpur said. “The process involved a lot of direct interaction with the people who would be using this technology.”

During the pitch, Bala said the team already has 230 preorders for the $199 Moment device and one patent. The $100,000 investment will speed the process of filling the orders, which Somatic Labs hopes to do by June.

“We’re starting with people who have visual impairments because they needed this technology yesterday,” said Bala, who won a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to research haptics.

As the orders came in, the three entrepreneurs talked to customers with visual impairments, and one man described how, when he wanted to know who was calling him, he had to have an audio notification.

“Even as simple as checking what time it is involves cranking up the volume and having the phone yell out the time,” Bala said.

“If someone is calling, you’ll hear something like, ‘Your mom is calling, your mom is calling,’ in the middle of a meeting or in class.”

Moment communicates tactilely. For example a visually impaired person who is walking down the street and approaching an intersection will feel a sensation on her wrist. Different callers would have unique sensation patterns on the user’s wrist.

Users download an app on their smartphones to sync with Moment. The device works with applications such as Facebook and Twitter, but it’s built so that anyone can make an app to interface with it for free. It includes an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer to calibrate and provide interactive feedback.

Bala said the team is constantly updating its prototype — even as often as every few days.

“We’ve fabricated our own plastics, made our own circuit boards, wrote all our own software over the last year. We do all our own marketing and design.

“We built this company from the ground up.”

Top photo: Designers of wearable technology for the visually impaired, Somatic Labs team members — Ajay Karpur (left) and Shantanu Bala of ASU, and Jacob Rockland of UofA — won the top prize at the ASU Innovation Open on Sunday at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix. They took a moment to collect themselves after picking up the $100,000 award and championship belt. 

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Aspiring PR mavens in the making

ASU Public Relations Lab challenges students to think critically and beyond graduation

April 3, 2017

There are common phrases students hear throughout public relations careers. Aside from stressing the importance of accuracy and integrity, students are encouraged to secure internships, network with practitioners and build their portfolio. Each element works together to jumpstart their career even before they walk across the commencement stage.

The Public Relations Lab at the Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication provides students the environment to refine their skills and the opportunity to connect with and learn from other public relations professionals. woman working on laptop in classroom 2016 PR News Student of the Year Caitlin Bohrer works in the PR Lab. Download Full Image

The Lab’s “teaching hospital” approach is intended to enhance a student’s marketable skills before graduation. Students work out of a state-of-the-art newsroom which operates like a PR agency and are led by Fran Matera, a veteran journalist and public relations educator and professional.

“The Cronkite PR Lab is designed as an intensive learning environment and operates as an agency with student teams who work on behalf of their clients,” Matera said.

Clients range from Fortune 500 companies to startups — reflecting organizations with international to local reach — including Intel, Honeywell, and NASA.

The semester-long course includes producing communication campaigns and strategies for clients under the guidance of faculty. Students refine their writing, research and presentation skills, allowing for a seamless transition into the working world, according to Matera.

students giving presentation

From left to right: Cronkite School students Kaylee Stock, Tyler Prime and Sierra Ciaramella give a presentation in the PR Lab.

 Part of finding success is connecting with inspiring mentors. Scott Pansky, co-founder of the award-winning global public relations firm Allison and Partners, has paved a road for Cronkite students to connect with mentors.

Pansky founded The Enid R. Pansky Mentorship Series exclusively at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication specifically for the Public Relations Lab. The series honors the entrepreneurial spirit of his mother and her role as mentor to many and creates an opportunity for a PR Lab student to spend quality time with an individual they wish to emulate.

Each spring the PR Lab Mentorship Lecture takes place and the Aspire Award is given to a selected aspiring public relations student. Previous mentors include John James Nicoletti, vice president of internal communications at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. His protégé, Tayllor Lillestol, is now a public affairs coordinator for The Walt Disney Company.

“John’s support and encouragement have helped so much, both in my adjustment to the professional world and in moving to a new city where I didn’t know anyone,” Lillestol said. “Now, almost two years after I started at Disney, John and I still meet on a regular basis. I know I can always turn to him for guidance — and luckily, he’s right down the hall.”

This year’s Aspire Award recipient, and 2016 PR News Student of the Year, is Caitlin Bohrer. Bohrer is a senior team leader in the PR Lab and currently working as a public relations intern at LaneTerralever, a Phoenix advertising agency. Joining her is her mentor Corey duBrowa, Starbucks senior vice president of global communications and international public affairs.

“This is amazing,” Bohrer said. “He’s had a very successful career, working for successful companies and now heading communications for Starbucks. I’m just really excited to talk to him and learn from his insight, how he’s built his career and how he’s learned to overcome different obstacles.”

duBrowa has over 20 years of experience, serving as an expert communicator for several high impact brands, including Nike and Microsoft. Today, he leads the development and execution of communication strategies for Starbucks, translating passion and expertise from his role on diverse teams.

Bohrer admires Starbucks for the brand experience they create and their social responsibility. Both of these fall in line with her future plans to apply her knowledge and serve the greater good, like a true Sun Devil.

“I hope to be able to work for a company or an agency where I am able to create that culture and brand experience,” she said. “Aside from coffee, it’s the corporate social responsibility of highlighting people who are doing great things for their community.”

duBrowa is scheduled to visit with Bohrer prior to the PR Mentorship Lecture in April. Bohrer plans to seek duBrowa’s personal and professional guidance well into the future.

Through the generous support of Pansky, mentors like Nicoletti and duBrowa have found a place at ASU to share their knowledge with those students who strive for their maximum potential in the communications field.

Pansky, although not an ASU alum, is committed to the ASU PR Lab based on its people and program content.

“The Aspire Award has truly become the highlight of our family’s donation over the past five years,” Pansky said. “ASU’s award-winning PR Lab is one of the strongest in the nation. We are so very proud that we can help bring inspirational public relations leaders such as Corey to campus so they can share their stories and advice for entering the communications arena.”

The PR Mentorship Lecture is free and open to the public.

What: Enid R. Pansky PR Mentorship Lecture
When: 7–8 p.m. April 10
Where: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, First Amendment Forum, Downtown Phoenix campus
555 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Visit ASU Events for location information.

Meenah Rincon

Public Relations Manager, ASU Online