Idea for ‘smart’ knee brace wins UMass Lowell entrepreneurship contest

LOWELL — UMass Lowell students developing a “smart” brace that can track a patient’s recovery time from a knee injury have won the university’s annual engineering pitch contest for budding entrepreneurs.

The concept for the brace, called ConnectKnee, topped a field of 17 entries in UMass Lowell’s seventh annual Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition. The contest asks student teams to pitch an innovative product or service before expert judges and awards seed money to help make the winning ideas a reality.

The competition is part of UMass Lowell’s yearlong DifferenceMaker program, which teaches students in all majors skills they can use to launch their own ventures to address challenges in business and the community.

ConnectKnee is a brace fitted with biosensors that monitor the patient’s muscle activity and track the knee’s range of motion. Information gathered by the device links to a smartphone that allows the patient and attending doctor or physical therapist to assess the wearer’s recovery time, according to biomedical engineering major Alyssa Mulry of Rutland. She came up with the concept for the product after her cousin was laid up for a long time after dislocating a knee cap during a lacrosse game.

“I saw firsthand how limited and discouraging recovery from a knee injury was,” Mulry said. “The idea really just took off after that.”

Fellow UMass Lowell students working with Mulry to develop the brace include mechanical engineering major Jackson Kelley of Walpole and biomedical engineering major Tiffany Miller of Hooksett, N.H.

“We are surprised and extremely grateful to have won,” Mulry said after the event, held remotely in December via Zoom. “There were so many incredible teams presenting. The competition was very strong.”

The students’ pitch before the judges contributed to the team’s success, according to Kelley.

“We worked on the product’s business plan a lot and I think it paid off,” he said.

With the win, the ConnectKnee team received $2,500 to develop the brace and landed an automatic berth in the DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge, the program’s largest pitch competition to be held in the spring. The students are veterans of the challenge, having won the Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle prize of $4,000 in that event last year, also for ConnectKnee.

The team is busy designing a prototype for the brace, according to Mulry and Kelley.

“We can’t wait to start having individuals try it out so we can receive feedback. We also hope to continue to work with the DifferenceMaker program and other mentors to see where the future of ConnectKnee can go,” Mulry said.

Judges in the prototyping competition included UMass Lowell alumni Chad LaFrance of Texas Instruments; Mark Saab, founding trustee of the Saab Family Foundation; Ram Sudireddy, co-founder of Bento; and Manijeh Goldberg, CEO and founder of Privo Technologies; along with Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system. Wilson founded the Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell, where he is a distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technology and innovation.

Since the DifferenceMaker program began in 2012, participants have raised $5 million in external funding, launched 38 companies and filed for or received 10 patents. Those ventures include Nonspec, a company based in Lowell that manufactures low-cost, adaptable prosthetics.

Submitted by UMass Lowell

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