Water analysis device takes top prize at Rowan Idea Challenge

Water analysis device takes top prize at Rowan Idea Challenge

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The concept is so straightforward that John McEvoy and Cameron Mikulski were sure it had been done.

It hadn’t.

Now, however, the two Rowan University students, along with six students and alumni from Rowan College of Burlington County and RCBC Applied Engineering Chair Greg Perugini, are working together to create a mobile handheld device that tests the safety of water and provides immediate results.

Their work got a big boost when their product—known as the LightAI Mark III—took top honors at the third annual Idea Challenge held at Rowan University last month. Hosted by the Rowan Innovation Venture Fund, the Idea Challenge featured a dozen teams of students, all of whom pitched their best business ideas before an audience of University stakeholders and potential investors.

The winning team, led by McEvoy and Mikulski, both of whom transferred to the University this year from RCBC, won $7,500 to continue its work to develop the LightAI Mark III.

Their idea involves creating a water collection device that works in conjunction with smartphone technology. The device snaps onto the phone as an attachment. Utilizing a process called absorption spectroscopy, the device measures beams of light radiating through any liquid and sends that information to an onboard computer. The computer then conducts a sophisticated analysis of the sample, determining what chemicals are in the sample. The information is sent in real time for display on the smartphone.

Students see the LightAI Mark III as a valuable device to test the safety of water and other liquids anywhere in the world.

“It could be really helpful in Third World countries. If this goes forward, we can truly have a bigger impact on people’s health,” says McEvoy, a junior exploratory studies major from Moorestown.

“The biggest surprise was that there really isn’t anything like this,” adds Mikulski, a junior biology major from West Deptford. “The big thing about our product is its mobility.

“Our competition right now is desk-based spectrometers. They’re very, very expensive, there’s a highly specific way to collect samples and it takes two weeks for results. Our device is something that everyone could buy and use.”

The idea for the LightAI Mark III was developed at RCBC. McEvoy asked Perugini if spectroscopy could be conducted through a cell phone. They discovered it could. Together, they formed Light Analytics, a company that is owned by Perugini and all student team members. They presented their idea at the RCBC poster symposium in May, taking first place. And in June, they applied for a provisional patent for the product.

Over the summer, students met each morning for two hours refining the device, which has gone through three different iterations. Team members are writing the computer applications to make the product viable, while engineers in the group are using 3-D printing and sophisticated programming to develop a prototype.

McEvoy is hopeful to have a model device ready by the end of the year. It’s possible it could be ready for production as early as summer, he says.

The device is estimated to retail for $495, according to McEvoy. Team members see the product expanding to test substances other than water, such as chemicals, blood or other liquids. That could be helpful to members of the military or law enforcement, the students say.

“We can test any liquid that light can shine through,” says Perugini, an astrophysicist in RCBC’s Division of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math. “We estimate we can have results within 90 seconds. In the future, we could possibly test DNA or blood. We also could look for pathogens like malaria in water. The implications are staggering and they’re far beyond just testing water.”

“Water is our foot in the door,” says Mikulski. “This work could end up being our future.”

The Innovation Fund prize will allow the team to purchase a better 3D printer and to help with inventory as team members move forward with their concept, according to McEvoy.

“The prize money gives us a boost. It brings us to the next level,” says McEvoy.

In the three-year history of the Idea Challenge, this is the first time a team comprised mostly of community college students has taken first place. That speaks to the strength of the LightAI Mark III concept and bodes well for future collaboration between the University and RCBC on research initiatives to solve real-world problems, Perugini says.

“With this recognition, we can draw upon the labs and work at Rowan University to make it much more real,” says Perugini. “We can do great science together moving forward.”

The collaboration between Rowan University and RCBC already is strong.

In 2015, RCBC and the University formed a partnership that provides community college students with affordable pathways to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the University. RCBC students can complete a 3+1 program, which enables them to stay at RCBC’s Mount Laurel campus as they earn their bachelor’s degrees, taking their final year with University professors. Students also can complete their coursework at RCBC and finish their bachelor’s degrees online through Rowan Global. Or, like McEvoy and Mikulski, they can transfer to the University after two years at RCBC.

In addition to McEvoy and Mikulski, team members working on the LightAI Mark III include RCBC students and alumni Brandon Reese, Lauren Spanogle, Benjamin Dobkin, Paul Younis, Simran Kaur, and Victoria Esperance.

At the Idea Challenge, students presented an eight-minute pitch and then addressed judges’ questions. The Idea Challenge is driven and run by Rowan University students.

The Rowan Innovation Venture Fund and its sponsors, the Rowan Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the William G. Rohrer College of Business, the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, and the College of Science & Mathematics, collaborated on the Idea Challenge.

The $5 million Rowan Innovation Venture Fund was established in 2014 by the Rowan University Foundation. Managed by Howard Lubert, the fund makes equity investments in student, faculty, local and other startup ventures with the goal of stimulating entrepreneurship and research in South Jersey.