Innovation at the NYU Poly Prototyping Fund Showcase

By Jon. L. Debny | October 22, 2014

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Sustainability and Teaching Methods Lead the Pack

By Jon. L. Debny

NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering (SoE) Prototyping Fund Showcase [ed.: now NYU Tandon] is a collaborative program offered by the Greenhouse at NYU Polytechnic SoE (sponsored by a VentureWell grant) and the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. It’s one of an increasing number of innovation showcases occurring across the University. Each semester, ten teams of students receive up to $500 to build a hardware or software prototype. Teams present their projects at the showcase and discuss what they learned through building and testing the prototypes, as well as what they plan to do next in the development process. The spring 2014 showcase was an inspiring collection of student innovation and ingenuity that included the following projects, amongst others.


Team GreenFeet is an effort mounted by a group of four students—Achintya Ashok, Hubert Ki, Mike Richmond, and Rahad Miah—whose invention was a shoe insert that collected electrical charges as the wearer walked around. The electrical energy was then stored in a battery that could later be used to charge cell phones and other devices with a USB port. Although it was a rough prototype design, GreenFeet’s concept highlighted current climate change concerns and the ubiquity of people seeking power outlets to charge their mobile devices.

The Project GreenFeet team. Photo: The Greenhouse

The Project GreenFeet team. Photo: The Greenhouse

Currently, GreenFeet uses a material called piezoelectric to generate an electrical charge. However, the team has future plans to implement a technology called Triboelectric generation. “Triboelectric generation utilizes static charge that is developed between two uneven surfaces—rather than our traditional method of gleaning energy from material deformation,” explains the team. “We believe this to be a far more efficient method of gaining energy.”

They also have future plans to create a “smart” insole equipped with a microchip that sends data to a smartphone application detailing metrics about the wearer’s usage like number of steps, frequency of steps, when the wearer is most active, and other important data.

The Orb

The next station showcased another invention geared toward creating “green” energy. Called “The Orb,” the prototype looked similar to a stainless steel salad bowl covered by a transparent plastic bubble and mounted atop a wooden box.

The Orb harnesses clean energy to power devices with USB or AC inputs. Photo: The Greenhouse

The Orb harnesses clean energy to power devices with USB or AC inputs. Photo: The Greenhouse

The idea, similar to the GreenFeet device, is to harness clean energy—in this case solar energy—to power devices with USB or AC inputs. The way it functions, according to its inventors, Grayson Zulauf and Itamar Lilienthal, is that “light hits the clear hemisphere lens on top. From there, it is concentrated and bent, due to the properties of the material, onto the solar cell obelisk in the center.” They continue, “The light that is not absorbed by the obelisk hits the bottom, aluminum-coated hemispheric dish, which acts as a mirror to once again direct light onto the obelisk. The solar cells on the obelisk convert the light into electricity, which is then regulated and concerted to provide usable power in a multitude of forms.”

For the Orb Solar Device team, the ultimate objective is to create a fully-functional electrical model. This would include an orb with a base station that utilizes a converter to convert low-voltage DC to AC power and a regulator to power the USB port. If successful, the Orb would demonstrate that devices channeling solar power could one day occupy windowsills throughout the world, providing clean energy to electronic gadgets and appliances.


SmartLock is an innovative lock for doors that works with most current door frames and does not require the current locks to be replaced. The SmartLock team—Arthur Popovich, Kwok Ben Mak, and Zhuo Ying Wu—used off the shelf parts to create a prototype that consisted of a mock doorframe with a door and a SmartLock lock.

The way it works is this: If one wanted to open a certain lock, one creates an account on the site and download an app that gets information from the online database (such as which lock(s) the user is allowed to open) and downloads a password to that user’s phone. The app then sends the password to the SmartLock via a Bluetooth signal, which subsequently opens the lock.

The current SmartLock prototype was not without its flaws. Nevertheless, the team states that the next generation SmartLock will address installation and a few other usability issues, with a new “strike design,” low power usage, and more compatibility with existing locks.

Other Notable Exhibits

Cognitive Toybox: This team developed actually three prototypes—a book, an electronic bear, and a web application—to teach children the “‘shape bias,’ the idea that objects with the same name tend to have the same shape.” The result in children 17 months old showed that they learned three times as many words over an 8-week period compared to children who were not taught the shape bias.

The floor at the Prototyping Fund Showcase

The floor at the Prototyping Fund Showcase

To achieve this the team developed:

  1. A book with “eight foreign objects that have different colors, textures, and sizes. Children play with these toys by helping to match the objects by shape.”
  2. An electronic bear that “gives positive feedback (in the form of a verbal “Yay!”) when children put two objects of the same shape on its hands.”
  3. An iPad application that “helps children to learn real object words by asking them to find the other object of the same shape. It also tracks a child’s accuracy, so that parents can track vocabulary growth on a week to week basis.”

YumWater: This team—Allison Whaley, Dipen Desai, Ruchi Hazaray, and Yuan Wang —developed flavored water purification tablets that also turn color. Their pitch to the consumer is that “YumWater is a fast-acting product that is fun to use. It’s an exciting way to not only purify water, but transform it into a delicious beverage.” The team hopes in the future to move from tablets to flavored purification drops, since the liquid drops dissolve in water more quickly.

Hacker’s Kitchen: Hacker’s Kitchen describes itself as “an e-Waste repurposing program that empowers and attracts hackers to build and repair unused electronics into new gadgets.” They collect and categorize old electronic parts and hold workshops so that hackers can come together and build gizmos. Although they did not have any gadgets on display, Hacker’s Kitchen did feature a very interesting life-size robot composed of circuit boards and other pieces of electronics.

Looking Ahead

The Showcase is held twice a year under the direction of Greenhouse advisor, Anne-Laure Fayard, Associate Professor of Management in the Department of Technology Management and Innovation at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. Programs Director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, Lindsey Marshall Gray, explained that she and her Showcase co-host, Executive Director Frank Rimalovski, plan to get more applicants and grow the event. Eventually, Gray and Rimalovski would like to connect the teams to grants that might eventually entice venture capitalists to fund the various projects and prototypes. Team GreenFeet, The Orb, SmartLock, and others clearly demonstrated that even with a small amount of funding, these creative entrepreneurs could take rough concepts and produce amazing results. We should all look forward to see what the next Showcase brings.