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100-hour challenge

From Trash to Treasure

by Brittney Mitchell Friday, December 20, 2013
Armed with only 100 hours and leftover university property, a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students proved that innovation can push the limits of possibility.  

The 100-Hour Challenge tasked students with building a product or service from surplus state property. The Entrepreneurial Residential Learning Community (ERLC) hosted the event, which took place during the weekend of November 14–18, 2013.

“The entire experience sharpens creative skills and forces students to be resourceful,” said John Surdyk, the faculty director of the ERLC who organizes of the 100-Hour Challenge. “They literally learn how to turn trash into treasure in one weekend.”

Surdyk said the event tests how students innovate under pressure. The competition isn’t meant to produce a fully formed business plan, but challenges students to come up with a minimally viable product.

With a background in medical device research, Jason Chiang, a fourth-year graduate student in biomedical engineering, said the competition took him out of his comfort zone.

“Often in lab settings or in a really heavy research environment, you end up having almost too many resources; you get paralyzed by indecision,” Chiang said. “In this case, all we got was trash. You had to focus on the idea, rather than the technology behind it.”100 Hour Challenge at the Entrepreneurial Residential Learning Center

The students competed for four $300 prizes that included most creative, most potential social value, most potential revenue value, and people’s choice.

The weekend began with a special UW SWAP (Surplus with a Purpose) pick up at the residence hall. Eighty students came to gather materials (of which 40 people managed to develop a product and submit an entry), and each team was given a $15 stipend for materials. Chiang, along with teammates Layla Barkal and Sumit Kar, looked for items that would complement their medical backgrounds (Barkal is a graduate student in biomedical engineering, and Kar is a graduate student in physiology).

“There was a lot of laboratory trash,” Chiang said. “We found these tubes lined with silica. From that point we knew we could extract DNA.”

Chiang’s team left the pick up thinking they would extract strawberry DNA to develop a tool for farmers in developing nations, but the plan quickly changed when the group realized extracting DNA from vegetables and fruit is extremely complicated.

“DNA is a really stable molecule, so one can be fairly certain that most of the product will be DNA,” said Chiang, “Unfortunately, we ended up with a glob of DNA after extraction. It was completely denatured and didn’t hold its structure. We knew we couldn’t do anything with it.”

With the equipment they had, the team stuck with the idea of extracting DNA.

“We needed to find a disease where it was abnormal to find DNA. The first thing we thought about was meningitis,” Chiang said.

The infection, found in spinal cords, is predominantly diagnosed with a spinal tap. If a doctor finds DNA during a spinal tap it’s a sign of a serious bacterial or fungal infection—and it’s often too late to change the course of treatment.100 Hour Challenge at the Entrepreneurial Residential Learning Center

The team took materials they had laying around, plus the products they picked up from SWAP—a light bulb, magnifying glass, circular tube holder, and silicon-lined tubes—and created a urine-based early detection system for fungal meningitis.

“The idea behind our test is that it could be set up and taken down practically anywhere,” Chiang said. “If something breaks down, you can just replace it.”

The group imagines the test could be given regularly to patients with immune compromising diseases such as HIV. Only one other FDA-approved product exists to test for fungal meningitis, but it’s expensive and requires refrigeration.

The fungal test earned the students the top prize for potential revenue. The Optimus VCR Prime Wind Power Generator team (Jeong Woon Yang and Hyun Ho Yoon) won the people’s choice and potential social value awards, while the Fancy Fan team (Caroline Lin, Alena Khoperskaya, Jiao Jiang, and Jillian Lai) took home the most creative award.

Chiang said the entire experience taught him that innovation isn’t limited to those with large research budgets.

“It is absolutely possible for anyone to take leftover scraps from a research lab and turn them into beneficial products,” he said.