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Engineering and humanities collide for social good

May 21, 2019

ASU grad helps spread awareness of homeless population needs among tech field

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 9,865 people experience homelessness on a given night in Arizona. Nationally, 552,830 people lacked housing on a given night last year, including men, women, families, veterans and youth.

People who experience homelessness often lack shelter, clothing and food as well as opportunities for regular employment and health care because they don’t have access to a permanent address, phone line or internet connection.

Since 2016, Baani Khurana has been volunteering with Arizona State University’s Project Humanities outreach initiative to distribute donations of clothing, water and toiletries to people experiencing homelessness in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“My Sikh faith inspires a passion for community service,” said Khurana, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. “Nonprofit organizations are not given as much exposure in the tech field. I wanted to change that narrative by spreading awareness and helping meet the needs of the homeless population.”

Inefficient processes hinder potential impact

Through volunteering, Khurana noticed organizers struggling to acquire critical resources and redistribute surplus donations to efficiently meet the needs of people who are homeless. Project Humanities, for instance, often has a surplus of women’s clothing but not enough men’s clothing.

The initiative also has a difficult time tracking what items go the fastest, what items are being requested most often and how to share items with other organizations.

“Our greatest challenge is access and distribution of resources,” said Rachel Sondgeroth, an ASU undergraduate student in religious studies and the communications and outreach coordinator at Project Humanities. “Ideally, all the nonprofits in Arizona should be part of a greater network that connects us with resources and gets them to us in a simple and timely manner.”

In researching Phoenix’s homelessness crisis, Khurana found many nonprofit organizations addressing the needs of people who are homeless were disconnected from one another. The disassociation was hindering their ability to maximize their impact in serving the community.

“There is no streamlined process of understanding needs, tracking donations and sharing resources among nonprofit organizations,” Khurana said. “The lack of efficiency, consistency and centralization of the current process decreases the rate at which homeless individuals can be helped. This raises the question: Is it possible to improve this process using technology?”

Project Humanities thesis defense

Baani Khurana (center) poses with Associate Professor Lalitha Sankar (left) and Associate Professor Rida Bazzi at her honors thesis defense for her project, “Privacy Guaranteed Data Collection: The Case for Efficient Resource Management of Nonprofit Organizations,” which was the basis for Khurana’s solution for Project Humanities. Photo courtesy of Baani Khurana

A privacy-guaranteed software solution

For her honors thesis as part of Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, Khurana proposed a privacy-guaranteed software solution to improve the process of collecting statistics on client needs, tracking donations and managing resources more effectively.

As privacy assurance is important to people experiencing homelessness, Khurana wanted to ensure her software could collect data with no personally identifiable information.

She also sought to offer an alternative to databases that require identity documents since many people experiencing homelessness often do not have valid forms of identification. Thus, the software could help nonprofits in assisting clients without needing to know their identity.

Khurana turned to Lalitha Sankar, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools, for help. Sankar has conducted an extensive amount of research on information privacy for consumers, free online service markets and even critical infrastructure networks.

“Mass violations of individual privacy are happening with technology on a consistent basis,” Sankar said. “Any software designed to serve a broader community needs to offer reasonable privacy guarantees to avoid exposing the identity of those the software solution is intended to serve, such as people experiencing homelessness. Collecting and sharing aggregate data is the first step to limit privacy violations if the designed database does not collect or store any personal data.”

Khurana worked with Sankar to design a two-part prototype solution with an inventory database and web application that only collects queries of donation surpluses and need requests. Additionally, the web application requires an authorized user login to protect resources being shared with multiple nonprofit organizations.

The inventory database stores all the need requests and donation surpluses from nonprofit organizations across the Phoenix metropolitan area. These nonprofits have the ability to browse donations, share resources and ultimately communicate more efficiently to better serve people experiencing homelessness.

“In the future, this software solution can be universally applied and go beyond the scope of Phoenix nonprofits addressing homelessness.”
— ASU engineering graduate Baani Khurana

The web application gives nonprofit volunteers the ability to enter aggregate data, such as a needs request or a donation surplus, and view tables of available resources across the Valley.

“Baani’s inventory database is exactly what we need,” Sondgeroth said. “It will make it easier for us to track our flow of donations, express our needs to the community and expand our network of partnerships.”

Khurana’s software solution will increase standardization, efficiency and automation for nonprofit organizations. The inventory and web application demonstrate a consistent way to collect data across organizations while guaranteeing the privacy of individuals experiencing homelessness. The centrality of the solution increases efficiency and automation by enabling organizations to communicate and make resources more readily available for the community.

“Overall, this database and web application adds value toward nonprofit organizations’ networking capabilities, resource management and resource distribution,” Khurana said. “The percentile of homeless individuals connected to these resources is expected to increase substantially with future live testing and large-scale implementation.”

Khurana will pursue computer science graduate studies through the 4+1 accelerated master's degree program at ASU in the fall. She'll continue to collaborate with Sondgeroth to determine how Project Humanities can start using the database in real time. Additionally, they’ll attempt to get other local nonprofits on board to help maximize their impact and better serve people experiencing homelessness in Arizona.

“In the future, this software solution can be universally applied and go beyond the scope of Phoenix nonprofits addressing homelessness,” Khurana said. “It could potentially expand to any organization in any city that wants to improve resource sharing, collect needs and track donation surpluses, such as women’s shelters, nonprofits for people who experience domestic violence, rehab centers, inpatient hospitalization facilities and more.”

Additionally, Khurana believes the software could be used by redistribution centers serving victims of natural disasters.

“Baani’s honors thesis is technologically motivated for a greater social good, and I think that’s where we need to go with technology,” Sankar said. “She had a goal to create a solution for the local community and achieved it with extraordinary integrity. She’s only scratching the surface of what she can accomplish, and I encourage her to go further with her project.”

Top photo: Computer science graduate Baani Khurana created a privacy-guaranteed software solution to help nonprofit organizations serving people facing homelessness. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist , EdPlus


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Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator's first cohort gets expert insights and industry knowledge

May 21, 2019

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

An interlocking breathing tube that prevents death by accidental removal. An app that provides peace of mind concerning your sexual health. A wearable health-monitoring device that tracks movement in real time to expedite healing and prevent further wrist injuries.

These are just a few of the novel ideas coming out of the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University designed specifically to provide early-stage medical device and health care technology companies with personalized business development plans and collaborative opportunities to accelerate go-to-market and investment possibilities.

The program began accepting applications back in January and held its official launch April 22 at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, where the six companies chosen to participate in the first cohort presented their elevator pitches to a room full of Mayo and ASU personnel.

“Those of you who know about ASU know that we’re the No. 1 university in innovation in the country. So to be partnering with the No. 1 hospital to collaborate on medical innovation is very exciting for us,” Rick Hall — the program’s co-managing partner of the accelerator and ASU Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation clinical professor — said before introducing the participants.

The event also served to kick off the accelerator’s two-week immersion program, in which participants spent 10 days immersed in the ASU and Mayo Clinic ecosystems, learning directly from subject matter experts about such topics as human-centered design, FDA regulation and reimbursement strategy. In addition, each afternoon, participants had time to meet with mentors to identify potential collaborators. 

“One of the key differentiators of the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator is its extensive access to experts and focus on business development; participants interacted with 60 mentors and experts on average during a two-week immersion”, said Timmeko Love, Mayo Clinic’s co-managing partner of the accelerator.

In total, the accelerator will last six–12 months, depending on the unique development plan for each participant, with incentives offered to participants to stay and work in Arizona. Of the companies in the inaugural cohort, one is local to the Valley, two hail from Canada and three are based in U.S. cities from San Francisco to Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

April 25 was designated as “Community Day.” Participants gathered that afternoon at Galvanize, a tech-focused coworking space in downtown Phoenix, to network and hear from a panel of leaders from the greater Phoenix startup ecosystem — including Christie Kerner, StartupAZ Foundation director of venture development; Brad Halvorsen, Flinn Foundation executive vice president; and Darryn Jones, Greater Phoenix Economic Council vice president of emerging technologies.

The panel, which was organized and moderated by Love, shared invaluable advice and industry knowledge specific to the Phoenix area, such as the ease of attracting talent and the supportive entrepreneurial culture.

“Companies can start here, but they can also scale here,” Jones assured the participants.

Life365, a digital health remote patient-monitoring company, is one of three companies that cohort member Kent Dicks has founded in the Phoenix area.

An ASU alumnus, Dicks was blunt about why he thinks the Valley is a great place for startups. Not only is it a supportive environment, it’s cheaper than other startup cities and “if you want media attention, you can fight (for it) with 500 people in the Bay Area or 10 people in Arizona,” he said.

Elyse Blazevich, COO and CFO of Securisyn Medical, was impressed with the access the accelerator afforded her team in such a short time.

“We’ve been here less than a week and already the doors that have been opened to us to some of the world’s best and brightest is incredible,” she said.

Securisyn Medical hopes to reduce the incidence of unplanned extubation — the accidental removal of a breathing tube — with the world’s first integrated tube stabilization system that utilizes an interlocking design to ensure the tube doesn’t slip out.

Every year in the United States, unplanned extubation causes 33,000 preventable deaths.

“If you don’t have an airway, you don’t have a patient,” Blazevich said.

President and CTO of BioInteractive Technologies Gautam Sadarangani got into the biomedical space after losing 150 pounds in college with the help of a wearable health monitor. His company’s take on the technology, a wristband called TENZR, seeks to empower the roughly 20 million people in North America who suffer from RSI (repetitive strain injury) in their wrists and hands by tracking movement in real time and relaying the information to a physician who can suggest therapies and better track a patient’s progress and adherence to recommendations.

BioInteractive Technologies is currently based in Canada, but Sadarangani said the company wouldn’t rule out the possibility of expansion in the Valley.

“We’ve been extremely impressed with the ecosystem here, the access to talent and the significant amount of venture capital,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator will soon start accepting applications for the next two-week immersion program, to take place in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The complete list of spring 2019 participants

BioInteractive Technologies: TENZR
Lukas-Karim Merhi, CEO, and Gautam Sadarangani, CTO
TENZR, a patent-pending wristband that detects the use of the hand, helps people that have suffered from a hand injury regain the use of their hand faster and more effectively.

Pascal Zuta, CEO
GYANT offers a suite of asynchronous virtual-care solutions that allows health care providers to increase patient satisfaction scores, reduce costs and aid the health care workforce via point-of-care solutions.

Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, CEO
Hexoskin offers a line of smart clothes that incorporate body sensors into comfortable garments for precise health tracking.

Kent Dicks, CEO
Life365 is a digital health infrastructure development and solution delivery company that provides software for patients to remotely interface with physicians.

Ken Mayer, founder and CEO
SAFE leverages digital technology to provide a virtual health care platform and provider network that empowers patients to consult with sexual health specialists, find and book STD testing and access a trusted source for clinical information.

Securisyn Medical
Elyse Blazevich, COO and CFO, and Mark Bruning, president and CEO
Securisyn Medical hopes to reduce the incidence of unplanned extubation with a tube stabilization system that utilizes an interlocking design to ensure the tube doesn’t slip out.

Top photo: Elyse Blazevich and Mark Bruning (right) executives with Securisyn Medical from the Denver area, talk with Rahul Rao of Desert Platforms medical device consultancy at the ASU/Mayo MedTech Accelerator's Community Day on April 25 at the Galvanize coworking space in downtown Phoenix. Securisyn is taking its tracheal intubation device through the FDA approval process and is hoping to begin testing on living subjects very soon. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

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