Up close photo of a student typing on a red backlight keyboard

Students create innovative prototypes at Cal State LA BioHack

Marathon event highlights coding and biotech skills to develop solutions related to food, agriculture and healthcare technology

By Madeline Tondi
Student Reporter

Laptop screens illuminated students’ faces while they drank endless cups of coffee. Some took short naps to refresh while others stayed awake the entire night. Their workspace was a mess of wires and circuit boards. All were trying to figure out how to solder this circuit or code that program. The clock was ticking. At the end it would all be worth it: they would survive the hackathon.

Called the BioHack because it focused on solving problems through biotechnology, the event was the first of its kind in Cal State LA history. The goal: support young entrepreneurs and technologists as they develop their problem-solving skills.

In the Golden Eagle Ballroom, 12 teams of students from an array of majors and different universities used a combination of hardware, coding and biotech knowledge to design and build products that tackled issues related to food, agriculture and healthcare technology.

The collaborative efforts of the LA BioSpace Incubator, Make in LA Hardware Accelerator, the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation in the College of Business and Economics, the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology, and the Office of President William A. Covino provided more than 80 students an environment that encouraged and provided the tools for innovation, hardware and entrepreneurship.

“When you look at some of the ideas that the students came up with, it’s really nothing short of amazing. There’s so much talent at this school,” said Cal State LA student Martin Tejeda, who serves as vice president of marketing for the Entrepreneurial Collegiate Consulting Organization (ECCO).

Cal State LA Vice President Jose A. Gomez, who chairs the LA BioSpace Advisory Board, said this event is an important part of a larger region-wide initiative to attract, train and retain the best and brightest scientists and entrepreneurs.

“We’re cultivating the future leaders in this vital field here at Cal State LA,” Gomez said.

“This is an excellent example of what our students can create, if we give them the tools,” added Jim Goodrich, dean of the College of Business and Economics. “I would like to thank Barney Santos and our ECCO students for getting the word out, and a special thank you to GitHub and other sponsors for their support of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here at Cal State LA.”

The College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology donated $4,000 worth of hardware that included batteries, circuit boards and cables.

“Cal State LA students brought huge energy, technical skills, and life experience to the BioHackathon. Their ideas were original and their solutions elegant,” said Emily Allen, dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology. “We are excited about hosting more of these types of events on our campus.”

In addition, the nonprofit Hacker Fund brought in professionals to mentor and assist the students. Another nonprofit national organization called Major League Hacking lent its expertise on hackathons and hacking culture. GitHub provided a $1,000 sponsorship because this was Cal State LA’s first event of this type. Student organizations on campus–the Association for Computer Machinery, ECCO and Biomedical Engineering Society–helped facilitate the event and answer participant’s questions. Professors came to the BioHack to lend their support well into the night.

The teams had 30 hours to complete a working prototype of their designs, which were judged on innovation, development of the prototype and the overall presentation of the team’s five-minute pitch.

The team “PT Squad” won first place with a device that uses sensors and microprocessors to detect movement and take measurements. This data is then translated into a visual graph to help physical therapists optimize therapy sessions. Cal State LA students made up three of the four members of “PT Squad,” and the fourth member came all the way from De Anza College in Cupertino. Second place went to the “Right Meow” team, which designed a cast that emits the same frequency of a cat’s purr. A purr is in a frequency range that promotes tissue regeneration and helps accelerate the healing of broken bones and tissue. Team “AiriBnB” won third place with a device that uses infrared heat to detect the severity of injuries to determine if a patient needs immediate care. The winning teams took home prizes such as drone kits, virtual reality headsets and iPods.

Santos, entrepreneur in residence of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, said the BioHack event was an ideal environment for students to test their technical and creative prowess.

“It fosters an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovative thinking,” Santos said. “When you give students a question to answer about a big problem, and no restrictions, then their creativity runs wild and anything is possible.”