13:45 PM

UST Student Engineering Team Wins Top Prize for Innovative Idea in National Competition

UST Student Engineering Team (L to R): Riley Keck, Fernando Baltazar, Belen Evens, Kyle Mamitag, Farrah Molina, Leslyan Reza, Henry Bautista, Elizabeth Monaghan, Ana GonzalezIn a NASA-hosted Shark Tank-style competition for higher education engineering students from across the country, a University of St. Thomas-Houston team has taken the top prize, besting institutions like Boston College and Tufts University. The nine-member team represented various backgrounds in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and physics.

The NASA MUREP Innovation and Technology Transfer Idea Competition (MITTIC), held every semester, asks student teams to create a marketable idea or product using intellectual property or patents developed by NASA for their missions. UST’s innovative winning idea, titled “Piezo Pace,” was to use NASA’s novel piezoelectric generator to sustainably power a pacemaker.

Innovative Pacemaker Addresses Sustainability and Quality of Life

A UST team member, junior mechanical engineering student Riley Keck, also president of the St. Thomas chapter of the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, said, “A typical pacemaker battery may last 10 years and then require surgery to replace. We proposed to replace the battery with a piezoelectric generator to harvest excess mechanical energy in the body and sustainably power the pacemaker. Theoretically, the expected life of the generator would prevent any need for replacement, saving money and risky surgeries in the future.”

Serious Preparation and Learning

The contest was comprised of three phases:

  • Phase 1, students propose an idea and submit a detailed technical and business proposal; selected teams move on to the 2nd phase.
  • Phase 2, the top teams take a three-day tour of a NASA campus and participate in a poster presentation, professional development, and finally their “Space Tank” pitch made before a panel of expert judges. 
  • Phase 3, the winning pitch gets to travel to NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley in May where the team will present their idea to a broad group of entrepreneurs. 

Why This Win Is Especially Exciting

Dr. Matthew Zelisko, assistant professor of Physics and EngineeringUST’s winning engineering team was under the guidance of Dr. Matthew Zelisko, assistant professor of Physics and Engineering. He explained why the win was so exciting for UST.

“First, this was a competition hosted by NASA (big name recognition there) with universities competing from around the country,” Zelisko said.  “Second, this was the first engineering competition a group of UST students has been able to fully participate in.  Due to COVID, we haven’t had much of an opportunity to showcase our engineering program, which began right as the pandemic hit. To go out and win the first competition like this sets a high bar for future groups of students. Finally, winning this competition has not only encouraged the participating students, but has inspired many of our other students to start looking into other competitions.  We already have multiple groups of students contacting me about getting involved in the future.”

Prize Money and a Visit to Silicon Valley

The UST team won $15,000 in prize money. Zelisko said they plan to use a portion of the winnings to continue researching the proposed idea. Their first step would be to develop a proof-of-concept experiment or prototype.

As champions, the UST team will visit the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley in May when they present their idea to a broad group of entrepreneurs.

Zelisko said, “The win demonstrates UST has a serious engineering department. Getting that recognition or reputation for developing high-caliber students can sometimes be difficult for a very new program. But, we now have proof that our department is taking steps to make sure our students are well-equipped to succeed in the future.”