Two USF Doctoral Students Win Florida Blue Pitch Competition

By Keith Morelli

Florida Blue Winners

TAMPA (October 11, 2018) -- A series of web-based educational courses intended to allow troubled veterans to help themselves with depression, a program that can predict symptoms of anxiety disorders based on brain waves and a simplified journal that can be used to help people suffering panic attacks were some of the innovative ideas pitched to a panel of judges at the sixth annual Florida Blue Health Innovation Competition held this week in Orlando.

But the winner of the $10,000 prize was a team of USF doctoral students in the USF College of Nursing for their idea to develop a baby-bottle nipple that mirrors the natural shape and flow of the baby's mother. The idea, they say, will allow babies to more readily breast feed, which will cut down significantly on post-partem depression. And beyond that, said Lauren Wright and Tram Pham, studies show that infants who are deprived of breast feeding tend to develop anxiety issues in their adolescence.

The competitors were asked to create innovative solutions that support the treatment of anxiety and depression through improving access to therapies, reducing the stigma of treatment, increasing engagement treatments, personalizing treatment access and options or improving convenience of treatments.

The theme was chosen by Florida Blue, which co-sponsors the pitch competition and provides the prize money. The USF Center for Entrepreneurship, a university wide, nationally ranked center that fosters entrepreneurship and connects students with the business community, was co-sponsor and handled much of the logistics of staging the event.

The product, called The Natural Nipple, already is in the patent pipeline and Wright, a clinical research nurse, and Pham, an RN on the orthopedic trauma floor of Tampa General Hospital, have already secured funding from the National Science Foundation to further develop their groundbreaking idea and bring it to market.

Wright said the product would be marketed not only to new mothers, but hospitals and clinics. Many times breast feeding problems begin there, she said, when babies are first fed through bottles in the neo-natal care unit. The newborns get used to a nipple that is not the same as Mom and the flow is much greater. Subsequently, they have trouble adapting to the real thing.

She said none of the large manufacturers of baby-bottle nipples have looked at making realistic baby-bottle nipples.

Wright is part of the USF I-Corps program – a public/private partnership program that teaches entrepreneurs to identify valuable product opportunities that can come from academic research – and is pursuing a PhD in psychoneuroimmunology and Pham is studying for a doctorate in nursing practice with a concentration in adult/gerontology primary care.

Judging the competitors was difficult for the nine judges, all entrepreneurs or CEOs of health-related businesses.

The innovative – and in some cases groundbreaking – ideas came from 27 finalists representing 17 Florida universities. Finalists made up 12 teams, often with team members coming from different schools.

Second place, $5,000 went to SciKey Diagnostics, a team from Florida Atlantic University made up of Michael Kleiman and Evita Conway; and the $2,500 third place prize was awarded to SynapCare, a team from Florida Polytechnic University comprised up of Michael Jernigan, Jordan Douglas and Chelsea Reaves.

The finalists pitched ideas under the theme of anxiety and depression, a growing health problem many people face in today's rapidly changing and fast moving world. It's a problem that impacts all age groups, ethnicities, genders and professions. The American Psychological Association estimates 40 million American adults, 18 and older, have some type of anxiety disorder.

The objective for the competitors was to create innovative solutions that support the treatment of anxiety and depression through improving access to therapies, reducing the stigma of treatment, increasing engagement treatments, personalizing treatment access and options or improving convenience of treatments.

Some of the ideas stood out to the judges, like the pitch from the team of Action Mapp, comprised of University of Central Florida students Britt Stevenson, Catrina Calub and Brandon Matsumiya. Their idea was to utilize the draw to video games to help treat depression. The app they created helps players manage and make progress with depression by incorporating certified depression coping-management techniques and reward-driven behavioral psychology principles to make the game more engaging. This, the students said, leads players to spend more time in the app and bettering their mental wellbeing.

The team of Project Jannus – Derek Austin of USF and Katie Vogel of the University of North Florida – created a series of web-based educational courses using cognitive-behavioral psychology techniques to allow military veterans to help themselves in a more private and personal way. The method takes into account that many veterans aren't vocal about depression and anxiety issues and often don't seek professional help. The program also seeks to form community support groups to aid in the reintegration process.

The field of competitors was culled from 59 applicants from across the state of Florida. In all, 27 finalists were chosen, including seven from USF.  The competitors came from a wide range of public universities, including Florida State, Florida Polytechnic, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Florida and Central Florida. Students from private institutions, Gannon University and Nova Southeastern University also took part in the competition.

"This has been a seven-year journey for us," said Michael Fountain, director of the USF Center for Entrepreneurship. "Back then, we saw that we had so many great universities in Florida and we thought, how can we do something to impact health care in the state, the nation and be an example for the rest of the world. We are looking for solutions to big problems here."

Dave Pizzo, market president of Blue Cross Blue Shield's West Florida Region, told the finalists after the competition concluded that all the presentations were viable.

"It was heartwarming to listen to all your presentations and the passion that went into each one," he said. "This is an incredible group of students this year.

"As I get older, I'll be very comfortable placing my care in your hands."