Graduate Students Awarded “Best-of-the-Best” Prize for
Innovative Idea to “Change the World”
The Change the World Challenge is a twice yearly competition open to all current Rensselaer students. The challenge, sponsored by the Office of Entrepreneurship, encourages the development of innovative ideas with the potential of achieving the Rensselaer goal of changing the world. Individual students and teams submit ideas focused on addressing energy, water, trust, safety, or security areas.
Each semester, up to 10 ideas that can improve the human condition are recognized as winners and share in a prize pool of $10,000. In 2010, an added $5,000 ‘Best of” award was specially created to accelerate the progress of a fall or spring team that demonstrated a strong commitment and clear momentum in pursuing the commercialization of its idea.
The 2012 Best-of-the-Best award was presented to graduate students Jonathan Ashdown ’06, ’12 (Ph.D. electrical engineering), Kyle Wilt ’06, ’12 (Ph.D. mechanical engineering), and Anthony DeMaio ’13 (MBA) for their breakthrough technology UltraSoniComm™. The innovation overcomes the limitations of conventional wireless capabilities by using ultrasound to transmit data and deliver power wirelessly through solid metal walls for a variety of critical potential applications in hard-to-reach environments.
“Selecting a ‘Best of’ winner from the submissions of several 2011-2012 Change the World Challenge winners was made difficult by the quality, potential, progress, and inventiveness of a dozen well-developed entries,” said Rob Chernow, vice provost for entrepreneurship and chair of the competition. “In addition to the creativity in our students’ ideas, we are impressed with how many are continuing to evolve and expand their innovations.”
For anyone who has ever lost a cell phone signal in a tunnel, subway, or elevator, the concept of the “Best of” wireless technology is obvious. However, its potential applications and outcomes go much further in helping to solve important challenges. Among three of the uses proposed by the inventors are: a sensor for monitoring incoming torpedoes on the outside of a ship or submarine by detecting its approach through the hull; efficiently monitoring oil rig equipment on the ocean floor, a pipeline, or a refinery to prevent or fix dangerous leaks similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster; or, the ability to monitor the interior of nuclear reactor vessels to preclude meltdown threats created by natural disasters like the recent tsunami in Japan.
The technology’s capability to power, collect, and store data with through-wall signal processing techniques and communication is revolutionary in comparison to current methodologies. It is expected to be easy to install with reduced downtime and it does not compromise the structural integrity of the metallic wall. The possible outcomes could result in significant saving of lives, time, and reputations, along with billions of dollars in damages and remediation.
“The team has demonstrated a high level of commitment in moving their technology from concept to reality. Their entrepreneurial progress in advancing their idea and their company on research, development, and marketing fronts has positioned them for continued success,” said Chernow. Several companies have expressed interest in this promising technology, including British Petroleum, Advanced Acoustic Concepts, Rolls Royce Naval Marine, Siemens, and GE.
Ashdown and Wilt have been collaborating as graduate students under the advisement of professors Gary Saulnier and Henry Scarton. The team has been working on this project since 2007. Ashdown is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering with a concentration in communication systems and signal processing. Wilt is a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering with a concentration in vibrations and ultrasonics. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the problem, they collaborated initially to develop a low-rate, low-power two-way ultrasonic through-wall communication system. In 2011, Anthony DeMaio joined the team to help explore the business implications of this breakthrough technology. DeMaio’s concentration is in global enterprise management.
“The Change the World Challenge helped greatly in the commercialization of this idea. The funds generated from the challenge enabled us to move forward to the beta test to be successful in validating this technology in a real-world setting,” said Ashdown.
The Change the World Challenge was created by Rensselaer alumnus, serial entrepreneur, inventor, filmmaker, and venture capitalist Sean O’Sullivan ’85. O’Sullivan earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer and was a founder and first president of software firm MapInfo Inc. He has started a number of other companies and organizations and is currently co-founder and managing director of Avego Corporation. He was selected as the 2011 William F. Glaser ’53 Rensselaer Entrepreneur of the Year.