Tech venture's setback reveals passion that drives innovation

June 23, 2014

Legacy of startup’s co-founder inspires commitment to fulfill his vision

Scott Shrake prepares students in Arizona State University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program for the challenges that often arise in launching entrepreneurial ventures. His own recent experience in a business endeavor provides a compelling lesson in coping with unforeseeable setbacks. Shrake EPICS Download Full Image

Shrake and partners Chris Stiffler and Brian Straub were making unusually rapid progress establishing a startup company called Vicinity Health. The company’s product is Wheezy, a compact health-monitoring device that plugs into a smartphone. It’s designed specifically for asthma sufferers.

Wheezy can detect the state of a user’s physical condition as well as environmental conditions in the user’s immediate vicinity. The device is programmed to focus on the specific physical and environmental factors that can be triggers for asthma attacks. The data Wheezy collects is delivered to a server where an algorithm is applied to develop a health profile of the user that will assess the person’s level of risk for having an asthma attack.

In only a few months, Shrake, Stiffler and Straub had signed on to work with a prominent business incubator and startup accelerator, and were on their way to raising seed funding for advanced prototyping and testing of Wheezy.

Vicinity Health was also selected as one of the TiE50 finalists. TiE (The indus Entrepreneurs) is the Silicon Valley’s premiere annual awards program for new technology startups. Program judges choose what they consider to be the most promising startups from among thousands of contenders worldwide. Getting named as one of the TiE50 puts fledgling businesses in a spotlight that can dramatically boost efforts to attract investors and support from a variety of sources.

The idea for Wheezy came from Stiffler, several months ago, after he suffered a severe asthma attack that put him in the hospital for four days.

A computer expert and all-around techie, Stiffler had his wife, Sandy, bring his laptop computer to the hospital, where he began working on concepts for the hardware and software for Wheezy while recovering in the intensive care unit.

Later, his search for those with the expertise to help him move beyond the idea stage led him to Shrake, a lecturer in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and director of EPICS, and Straub, a pharmacist.

Unfortunately, their momentum was recently halted in tragic fashion. In early June, Stiffler, who had suffered from asthma for most of his 35 years, had another severe attack, one from which he did not recover.

Besides his wife, Stiffler leaves behind a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. His son has also been experiencing symptoms of asthma.

His sudden passing has suspended the Vicinity Health project, but by no means ended it. Shrake said of Stiffler, “Chris was definitely a genius. This device was his vision and his dream. He really wanted to make a difference in the world. We are committed to forging ahead on this.”

The efforts to move the venture forward will also translate into something valuable for the students in the EPICS courses, Shrake said.

Doing the groundwork for Vicinity Health has expanded his firsthand experience in pitching business proposals, attracting investment, navigating through the process of developing new technology, and dealing with the regulatory requirements for bringing a new product to the market.

“Going through all of that will give me a stronger basis for better mentoring students about the challenges they can face in taking on social entrepreneurship projects,” he said.

Almost 300 students will participate in EPICS beginning in the fall semester – up from 40 a year and a half ago. They are expected to launch or continue 50 to 60 projects, using their engineering skills to aid community groups, nonprofit organizations and municipalities in devising and implementing solutions for meeting societal needs.

At the same time, support for EPICS from businesses and philanthropic groups is increasing, as well as the number of ASU faculty members guiding students on their projects. In addition, the EPICS high school outreach program is set to expand from four to 10 partner schools in the next year.

Chris Stiffler’s legacy will be reflected in the progress of EPICS students, Shrake said.

“His story is a lesson about why entrepreneurship is important, and that it is done best by people pursuing the kinds of solutions that raise the quality of their lives and the lives of the people around them,” he said. “Innovation starts with a problem and the passion to put everything you can into solving that problem. That’s what Chris was doing.”

Learn more about EPICS at ASU.

Read more about Chris Stiffler at a crowd-sourcing memorial website.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Schneider disability reporting contest now open

June 23, 2014

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University is accepting entries for the second annual Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

Administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Schneider Award is the first national journalism contest devoted exclusively to disability coverage. The award is made possible under a grant from Katherine Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who also supports the Schneider Family Book Awards operated by the American Library Association. Download Full Image

The first-place winner is awarded $5,000 and receives an invitation to speak at the Cronkite School. The second-place winner receives a $1,500 award, and additional honorable mention awards of $500 may be given at the discretion of the judges.

The contest is open to print, broadcast and online entries, which must be published or aired between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014. The entry deadline is July 31, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. MST. Participants can apply and find more information at

“People with disabilities make up nearly 19 percent of the U.S. population,” said Kristin Gilger, center director and associate dean at the Cronkite School. “This contest recognizes the outstanding work of professional journalists who are providing visibility to important disability issues.”

Last year, Ryan Gabrielson, a reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch, won the inaugural Schneider Award for a series exposing the routine failure of police to protect the developmentally disabled at California care institutions. The award-winning package of stories, “Broken Shield,” included an accompanying animated video by Carrie Ching and Marina Luz.

The second-place award in last year’s contest went to Gareth Cook for his New York Times Magazine piece, “The Autism Advantage.” Two honorable mention prizes were also awarded. They went to Daphnée Denis and Hoda Emam for a video documentary, “Playing by Ear.” The second honorable mention award went to Broughton Coburn for a long-form piece he wrote for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, titled “Second Chapter: A Portrait of Barry Corbet.”

“The journalistic skills displayed by last year’s winning entries were awesome,” Schneider said. “There were lots of good entries, and we're hoping for even more this year as the award becomes better known. It's worth entering for the possible chance of winning an opportunity to speak at the Cronkite School, to say nothing of the prize money.”

Reporter , ASU Now