Y-Prize returns with focus on biomedical engineering

The Y-Prize is returning for a fourth year, encouraging people throughout the Penn community to come up with business plans for technology emerging from the University’s engineering and medical labs.

A collaboration between Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Wharton School and its Mack Institute of Innovation Management, Wharton Entrepreneurship, and the Penn Center for Innovation, the Y-Prize is a riff on the competitions run by the XPRIZE Foundation. X-Prizes challenge anyone in the world to come up with a new way to achieve some lofty, society-benefiting goal, such as building a 100 mile-per-gallon racecar or sequencing 100 human genomes in 10 days for less than $1,000 each.

The Y-Prize flips the contest on its head, giving people access to existing, early-stage technologies and challenging them to come up with new ways of using these devices. 


Previous years’ contests had robotics and nanomaterials as their central technologies. This year, contests will have access to three different platforms used in biomedical engineering research: a crowdsourcing portal for “big data” analysis, high-throughput microfluidic devices for making tiny particles, and medical imaging technology that can automatically identify and track certain features in the picture.

“Innovation often happens best when we collaborate and approach problems from new angles,” says Saikat Chaudhuri, executive director of the Mack Institute of Innovation Management. “The Y-Prize is special because it encourages students across the University to come together and combine their diverse perspectives to devise entirely new applications for Penn technology.”

Zack Ives, a professor of Computer and Information Science in Penn Engineering, and Brian Litt, a professor of neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine and Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, are behind the big data analysis platform. They have previously collaborated on a prize for crowdsourcing the analysis of data from epilepsy patients, looking for signals that could mean the start of a seizure and proactively trigger a therapeutic device.    

Engineering assistant professor David Issadore, with appointments in Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, is providing the microfluidic devices. These computer-chip-like systems move tiny quantities of liquid, rather than electrons, with the ultimate goal of large-scale manufacturing of micron-scale particles. Such particles could deliver cancer-fighting drugs, but commercial and industrial uses are also possible.       

Jim Gee, an associate professor of radiologic science in Penn Medicine’s Department of Radiology, works on the medical imaging platform, which is capable of automatic “registration and segmentation.” The former allows the same point in two images to be matched; the latter can distinguish and outline specific features. Combined and applied to an X-ray or MRI, the two could be used to better diagnose or monitor the progression of a disease.  

Grand Prize winners will receive $10,000 and help establishing their start-up. Previous winners are already demonstrating that their business ideas have legs; the winner of the first Y-Prize—Identified—is marketing a service for flying robots to autonomously map job sites.  

A Y-Prize kick-off event is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 28, at the Smilow Center for Translational Research, 3400 Civic Center Blvd. Registration is free and open to all, though teams must include at least one Penn-affiliated member. The first round of proposals are due Friday, Nov. 6.

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