New SPARK initiative ignites entrepreneurship across campus

Winners develop mobile apps, research courses

This year's SPARK winners include, from left, Vivekanand Pandey Vimal, PhD’16, Grady Ward ’16, Robyn Powell, PhD ’17 and professor Laurence Simon

What do a computer-science major, a health policy PhD candidate, an LTS staffer and the founder of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) have in common? They are all among the winners of the first Brandeis University SPARK award for innovative ideas across disciplines.  
SPARK is designed to support projects that promote positive social, educational or financial impact on a broad range of issues. This year’s winning projects include a social networking app, health-care initiatives and web-based educational tools. The program is funded by the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center and the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) through the Brandeis University Virtual Incubator Program.
“The buzz and excitement this new initiative received on campus was extraordinary,” says Rebecca Menapace, associate provost for innovation and OTL executive director.  “The applicants were enthusiastic and passionate, their ideas thoughtful, and the presentations were of high quality.”
In addition to $50,000 in funding, SPARK provided applicants with training and mentorship, including a two-day boot camp where semifinalists honed their projects with mentors, refined their pitches and received feedback from experts.
“This program is really a fabulous idea,” says Laurence Simon, professor of international development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and AJWS founder.
Simon and his team from his Center for Global Development and Sustainability were awarded $5,000 to develop a methodology to test the efficacy of screening doors, windows and other entry points in homes and schools for reducing mosquito-borne diseases, especially dengue fever, among children in Sri Lanka. Simon’s team include Heller School faculty Vinya Ariyaratne, Joseph Assan, Diana Bowser, A.K. Nandakumar, Donald Shepard and PhD student Naeem Saleem.
Even professionals with decades of experience, like Simon and his teammates, can have difficulty getting their ideas funded.
“Finding the seed money to fully conceptualize and bring an idea to the point where you can present the evidence you need to a large foundation or private-sector funder can be challenging,” says Simon, who was also a SPARK boot-camp mentor.
“Working with these graduate and undergraduate students, reinforces that basic business planning is a critical skill, even for those of us in development, for-profit and nonprofit enterprises,” Simon says.
Grady Ward ’16 agrees.
Ward and his team won $5,000 to begin testing a web application that teaches calculus. The app, called CalcU, recommends calculus problems for struggling students, similar to the way apps like Spotify recommend musical genres based on personal preferences.
Ward’s team includes mathematics professor Rebecca Torrey, Sofiya Semenova ’17, Russ Santos '18, Roger LaCroix '18 and Danny Smyda '18.
“Going through the SPARK program made me reconsider the way I want the rubber to meet the road in the implementation of this program,” Ward says. “Before SPARK, I had a good sense of where I wanted to go but was unsure how to get there.”
Even those with business experience, such as Jon Nahum ’12, MA’13, MA’16, who attended Brandeis International Business School (IBS), learned something new from the SPARK process.
Nahum and his team were awarded $2,500 to build DressCode, a social networking app that allows users to rate other people’s outfits. Before applying to SPARK, Nahum and his team also participated in IBS’ 3-Day Startup (3DS) workshop.
“Before 3DS and SPARK, I didn’t really know how startups worked,” Nahum says. “I thought you built a product, then went to market with it. I learned that before you write a single line of code, you need to do tons of market research and adapt the product to that.”
The SPARK award will help support that market research.
“The great thing about starting a business on a college campus, especially a place like Brandeis, is that you have all of these resources at your fingertips,” says Nahum, whose team includes Yoseph Kantorovich ’17, Shaima Ahmadi, MBA ’16, Saul Tbeile ’17, Ryan Marcus, PhD ’19, and Shu Chen, MA ’16. “You can go to any professor and ask for advice and everyone is really willing to help.”
Other winners include:
Leah Igdalsky, research associate at The Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, professor Susan Parish and outside consultants Craig Shannon and Kathy Wahlbin received $10,000 for their project to improve breast and cervical cancer screening access for women with development disabilities.
Robyn Powell, PhD ’17, with Kara Ayers of the University of Cincinnati and Erin Andrews of Texas A&M, landed $10,000 to build an online peer-support network for parents with disabilities.
Feodor Hilitski, PhD ’16 and professor Zvonimir Dogic, with outside consultant Kostadin Alargov, received $7,000 to develop a web-based remote control for electronic devices.
Vivekanand Pandey Vimal, PhD’16, Sacha Panic, PhD ’16, Ian Roy, research technology project lead at LTS, Bethany Christmann, PhD ’16, Marissa Maddox, teacher at Waltham High School and Anique Olivier-Mason, director of education, outreach and diversity at Brandeis Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, received $5,000 to design a joint Brandeis-Waltham High School research course.   
The project entitled, “Enabling Inclusive Advocacy Through Developing and Pilot Testing Training in Human Subject Protections for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities,” received $4,938 to develop training tools to enable adults with intellectual disabilities to participate in community-based research.

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