Case plays its hand

 

The university sent a bold mix of innovators to CES 2020 in Las Vegas, where they learned what it takes to pitch a product and sell an idea.

Bingying “Judy” Feng ’16 came from China to earn her mechanical engineering degree at Case Western Reserve, then went back to China to help launch an intriguing startup. AntX Technologies is using artificial intelligence to develop a “smart scale” that can weigh the nutritional value of food.

Pretty quickly, she convinced her partners to bring the concept to America and pitch it to health-conscious dining halls and school cafeterias.

“I think this is a really good idea,” she said, her voice breathless with excitement. “I know there’s a market here.”

She shared her enthusiasm from an exhibit space at CES 2020, behind scales brimming with colorful plastic food. All around her were CWRU students, staff and young alumni pitching their own ideas and technical innovations at the world’s largest consumer electronics show. Like Feng, they tended to find curious interest, plenty of suggestions, and the occasional thrill of validation.

“They give us advice, just regular people, on how we can improve our product,” she said. “That’s important to us. Plus, it’s nice to know that people seem to like the idea.”

The university brought a dozen presentation teams to Las Vegas in early January to display a sample of CWRU innovation. Clustered in a “Case Hub” in the basement of a massive exhibition hall, the presenters took another step toward becoming innovators and entrepreneurs.

Most were science and engineering majors or recent alumni of the Case School of Engineering. At a trade show that attracted 170,000 attendees from around the world, they interacted with a steady stream of passersby.

“These are mainly student businesses—they’re beyond projects,” explained Bob Sopko, the director of the campus entrepreneurship consultancy, CWRU LaunchNet, and the leader of the CES pilgrimage. “This is part of their journey. They have an opportunity to get exposure but also realistic feedback from people with experience in the business. They can find partners, funding, even customers.”

Innovations in voice technology

Ricky Graham, PhD, was looking for music fans and found plenty.

To beckon people toward his exhibit for Delta Sound Labs, he had set up a motion-capture simulator. Moving bodies made the colors shift and swirl on an imposing display screen, and also massaged the electronic music firing from a tabletop speaker.

Graham, the program director at Sears think[box], was promoting his music production software, a plug-in he calls “Stream.” Since he holds a doctorate degree in music technology, he could also talk about the whole array of hi-tech tools available to musicians and music producers.

“We’ve got some people here who are really musicians at heart,” he said. “They totally understand what we do.”

Austin Wilson’s work, on display a few yards away, required a little more explaining. He intended to show how he’s bringing voice commands to video gaming, and it didn’t help that he couldn’t get his demonstration to load.

Wi-Fi troubles bedeviled many of the Case presenters in a hall crowded with Internet-connected displays. The students used personal hotspots, routers and ingenuity to try and overcome a lack of bandwidth. Many eventually succeeded.

When Wilson finally got his demonstration to run on a display screen, onlookers glimpsed what gaming would be like if players could ask questions of their avatar and issue voice commands.

Wilson is uncommonly suited to manipulate voice technology. A sophomore still deciding between computer science and computer engineering, he is one of only 40 “Alexa champions” worldwide. He earned that distinction for his skill at finding new application’s for Amazon’s virtual assistant.

At CES, he had help publicizing his latest Alexa application. Standing beside him was his dad, Mike Wilson, a research assistant with the CWRU School of Medicine. While his son plots new communication pathways, Dad is mulling a possible life change. He could see himself working for his son’s inevitable startup.

“I’m really excited to be here,” Mike Wilson said. “I am super proud of Austin and what he’s done. I’m still taking it all in. I’ve worked in the corners of the lab for a long time. This is out of my comfort zone.”

He smiled and looked rather comfortable.

Advances in healthcare

There was a medical edge to several of the Case Hub displays. Developers from Interactive Commons allowed people to don HoloLens headset and see how students at the CWRU School of Medicine are using augmented reality to peer inside the human body.

No one was more excited by the virtual dissections than John Link, the Microsoft engineer who led hardware development for HoloLens. The Lake County native stopped by the CWRU exhibit and lingered.

“I love to see people using it,” he said, adding that he lives for the “aha moments” when he sees new users discover the power of the technology.

“Case has been a partner with us all along,” Link said. “To see how they are using the technology, it lets us see that it really works!”

Around the corner, graduate students Donghui Li and Yiwen Deng had reason to smile. Their young company, Lumen Polymers, had just secured a provisional patent on its lead product—a bandage that comes unstuck, pain-free, under ultraviolet light. 

The bandage uses the concept of switchable adhesion, by which a material's stickiness can be "switched off" by using some type of disturbance. The patent covers its photoresponsive adhesive, which is activated by a UV light wand.

Li said he hopes to one day be able to mass market the bandage as a pain-free option for children, the elderly and others with sensitive skin.

Illustrating the serendipitous nature of CES, visitors to their exhibit included representatives from bandage-makers 3M and Johnson & Johnson. 

A Case kind of experience

This was CWRU's seventh consecutive appearance at the consumer electronics show. Each time, the Case display has grown a bit bigger, the exhibits more sophisticated, as students and young alumni seize the opportunities.

Feng, who earned her master’s in systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, saw another reminder of the advantages of her Case education. She said she’ll never forget the easy access to professors and advisors she enjoyed on Case Quad, or the kindred spirits she met in Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society.

“I felt a lot of love around me at Case,” she said.

At CES, pitching a startup, she felt back in the fold.