Student Startup Aims to Prevent Traffic Jams

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Dec. 4, 2012 — Traffic jams typically produce little more than frustration, profanity, and CO2. Four years ago, though, they happened to give Christian Brüggeman an idea.

He was sitting in a London Starbucks with a friend and fellow computer science student. As they chatted, they noticed that one street outside was choked with cars while another was practically empty.

They wondered why drivers weren’t taking advantage of every possible route. If cars could be directed along less-congested roads, wouldn’t that prevent back-ups before they began?

That idea ultimately became nunav, navigation software that aims to stop congestion and get its users from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. While existing services like Bing Maps can show commuters real-time traffic jams and offer alternate routes, nunav can prevent jams from happening in the first place by predicting where cars are headed, Brüggeman said.

Here’s how it works: nunav tracks the location and destination of every user in its network, currently through a Windows Phone app. Meanwhile, its routing algorithms also crunch data about surrounding streets, such as the number of lanes and speed limits, to calculate the maximum number of cars they can carry before traffic bottlenecks. nunav then “reserves” spots for drivers along their routes, making sure each road never reaches maximum capacity.

Voila – no more traffic jams, no more lost productivity, and no more needless CO2 emissions.

In computer simulations involving 50,000 cars, nunav users get to their destinations twice as fast and use significantly less fuel, Brüggeman said. Now he wants to transition nunav from simulations and trials to a market-ready product. The former university students who created nunav have launched their own company, Graphmasters, to try and sell nunav’s routing algorithms to manufacturers of navigation systems.

nunav drew notice from industry, press and venture capitalists earlier this year after winning the Environmental Sustainability Award, sponsored by Coca Cola, at the 2012 Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals. The young company can expect more attention.

Today at the Social Innovation Summit, Microsoft announced Team Graphmasters, formerly Team Greenway, was among the five winners of the second annual Imagine Cup Grants program.

“Through Microsoft YouthSpark, we’re aiming to create opportunities for 300 million young people around the world over the next three years. We want to give youth greater opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship and the Imagine Cup grants, a three-year, US$3 million competitive program that enables Imagine Cup participants to take their projects to market as the next step in their business development, is a great example of the innovative ways we’re creating these opportunities for young people,” said Akhtar Badshah, senior director, Citizenship & Public Affairs, Microsoft.

Badshah said Team Graphmasters represented the growing number of Imagine Cup teams that keep working after the competition to bring their solutions to market.

“One reason we were so excited to expand the Imagine Cup is because of Microsoft’s commitment to invest and provide opportunities for youth so they can imagine and realize their future,” he said. “The Imagine Cup Grants are this interesting way to help these teams that are imagining what the future can look like and then trying to go out and realize it.”

Brüggeman said the $100,000 grant will go toward expanding his company and hiring developers, marketers and sales staff to help bring nunav to users worldwide.

He added that the Imagine Cup helped his team make the leap from interesting research idea to actual business. “We are computer scientists,” Brüggeman said. “We can program and write software, but we had never thought about starting a company before.”

The competition’s focus on social issues resonated with them as well. Sitting in Starbucks, the students’ coursework had taken them deep into graph theory – a complex branch of computer science that powers nunav’s routing algorithms. The Imagine Cup inspired them to turn that initial spark at Starbucks into a project that could help the planet.

“We’re happy we found an application for our research that saves the environment, saves your wallet, and that’s good for everyone,” Brüggeman said.

A Stethoscope in the Cloud 

The Imagine Cup’s call to tackle real-world social issues also resonated with Hon Weng Chong, founder of Australia’s Team StethoCloud. Microsoft announced today that the team’s innovative project to advance the detection of respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and asthma also won an Imagine Cup Grant.

StethoCloud is a cloud-powered stethoscope that can help health workers diagnose early stages of respiratory illness. By connecting a stethoscope to a cell phone, a community health worker or unskilled administrator can transmit diagnostic information into a Windows Azure-based cloud service. StethoCloud’s software then analyzes a patient’s breathing for patterns that indicate the earliest stages of pneumonia or asthma.

Chong is a newly minted doctor who has always had an interest in both health and technology. He heard about the Imagine Cup through a friend and previous Imagine Cup grant recipient, Cy Khormaee from Team Lifelens. The competition seemed like a great opportunity to bridge his two disparate passions.

At the same time he heard about the Imagine Cup, he began his pediatric rotation at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. A senior clinician there told him that pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children worldwide. Chong decided to tackle the disease for the Imagine Cup.

A cheap diagnostic tool to detect pneumonia could have a huge impact on global health, Chong realized.

“Respiratory rates are the most sensitive indicators of the disease. But they’re also one of the last vital sign measures in medicine that haven’t become widely automated,” Chong said. “The only machines that do automate the process are extremely expensive. “

As part of the project, Chong and his teammates prototyped a low-cost digital stethoscope from off-the-shelf components. Compatibility with smartphones makes it easy for the devices to connect to the Internet and therefore the team’s powerful algorithms that could provide clinical decision support to health workers worldwide.

Chong said the $75,000 Imagine Cup grant will support their R&D and help determine if StethoCloud is in fact an accurate way to diagnose pneumonia and asthma. The team is about to start clinical trials of StethoCloud at The Royal Children’s Hospital. It could take months to get a statistically significant sample set. If all goes well, they’ll shift gears from R&D to commercialization. They’re already in talks with regulatory agencies around the world about manufacturing their digital stethoscope.

In the meantime, Chong will focus on his new career. He’s hopeful that StethoCloud will be in use worldwide in the near future. But he’ll wait for the data first.

“As much as I love what we’re doing, this is so new that there are many things we don’t know, and it’s possible we may find nothing,” he said. “With cutting edge science and research, you never know what you’re going to get. The risks may be high, but the rewards even higher.”