Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

June 11, 2015

PinCh seeks health-related innovations

Do you have a creative idea for improving health across different life stages? Would you like to win $25,000 or even $100,000 to implement it?

The 2015 Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) is seeking health-related innovations focused on the broad theme “Healthy lives matter beginning to end.”

Perhaps your idea is a mobile app, a community program or a new technology. Aside from the requirement that teams entering the competition include a current Pitt faculty member and that the proposed solutions include a link between at least two life stages, the sky’s the limit for ideas.

First-round competitors have until June 29 to submit a two-minute video introducing their team, describing the problem they want to solve and detailing their proposed solution. About 20 teams will be announced as semifinalists on July 24. About half of them will be named as finalists on Oct. 19.

The final round, in which a total of up to $375,000 in funding will be divided among the awardees, is set for Nov. 11. There, teams will pitch their ideas — no PowerPoint slides permitted — in a four-minute presentation to a panel of judges.

The process is light, with elements of fun, but the ideas are seriously useful. And winners need to show substance, not just slick presentation skills, said PInCh director John Maier.

“Proposals are reviewed by a panel of expert judges and feedback does help the teams move forward through the process. It’s not just fun and games. We have serious review and feedback from experts that helps make the decision,” he said.

PInCh is an initiative of the Office of the Provost, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the Innovation Institute that aims to give researchers an opportunity to think about things a little differently or to purse an idea that might be too risky to float in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant application, Maier explained.

“We have a lot of talented people here at Pitt. With the PInCh, one of the things we’re trying to do is find ways to shake some of that talent loose and get some of it translated out into clinical use,” said Maier.

“From a basic science perspective it’s from the test tube to the cell and from the cell to the mouse, or from the mouse to another animal. There’s always some step to take in translation. And I think if people start to think about ‘The problem they have is this’ and then solving it, it’ll help make that step,” he said.

“We tried to make it fun and we tried to make it interesting, but one of the things we want is to really get people to focus on a problem. We think that really will help as they solve that problem, to move onto that next step.”

The challenge questions are intentionally broad, designed to generate a range of responses from diverse perspectives. “We want it to be something that a lot of different people could look at and say ‘I could do something to submit to that,’” Maier said.

In past challenges, submissions have come from a range of students, staff and faculty from across the University’s campuses — and beyond. Not surprisingly, outside partners often are from Carnegie Mellon, but word is getting out far beyond Pitt’s neighbors, CTSI innovation project manager Nicole Edgar said. “We’re starting to see team members from universities across the country, with collaborators from Vanderbilt, the University of Delaware and Ohio State,” she noted.

Maier said, “We’re really happy with the diverse portfolio of people both from within the University … but also the big array of outside partners they come with.”

Nearly half the teams in the initial PInCh challenge in spring 2014 included a small business or contractor, a member of a community organization or some other outside partner. “In many cases we have a team that’s newly formed with an outside partner and someone in the University working together for the first time,” Maier said. “It’s good to get some of that communication going.”

Edgar noted that CTSI staff may be able to connect potential partners here at Pitt. “We have a good read on the research and faculty members’ work,” and sometimes can point a potential entrant toward the right faculty member.

Organizers anticipate 50-100 submissions to the challenge, similar to prior PInCh competitions, and a handful of videos already have come in, Edgar said.

Past challenge proposals have ranged from solutions centered on pet therapy, to a machine-translation tool for converting physicians’ cryptic shorthand notes into patient-friendly summaries in plain terms, to a solar-powered oven thermometer (for ensuring food safety in places lacking electricity). And those were some that didn’t make the final cut. “Competition is pretty high. There are a lot of great ideas,” Edgar said.


The initial PInCh challenge, in spring 2014, drew 92 entries in response to the question of how to empower individuals to take control of their own health outcomes.

Winning $100,000 awards were teams proposing a smoking-cessation support app; bandages laced with growth factor for at-home treatment of diabetic skin ulcers, and a smartphone/smartwatch-based system to help Parkinson’s disease patients manage their symptoms and complicated medication regimens.

Awards of $25,000 went to teams proposing a cloud-based clinical circlebacks app aimed at decreasing hospital readmissions; a text-based helpline for teens with sexual health questions, and a prescription notification system that can alert patients on multiple devices.

Sixty teams responded last fall to the second PInCh challenge “From cell to community: How can we individualize solutions for better health(care)?” Among the winners: an educational video series for families of pediatric patients; testing for treatable underlying metabolomic causes for patients whose severe depression wouldn’t respond to conventional treatments, and a nanotube-based breath acetone sensor to monitor ketosis.


New this year is a project facilitation phase in which a business and scientific board will provide feedback to the teams.

While the competition shares some similarities with the television show “Shark Tank,” Maier stressed that PInCh isn’t a business plan competition.

Some ideas might translate best by being commercialized, but that’s not a requirement. Nor is the competition solely for ideas that are near end-stage or products that are ready to launch.

“It’s important for people to know that we fund early-stage research,” he said. The proposed acetone sensor is one example, he said. Likewise, funding for the psychometabolomics team helped finance some very basic study. “That’s a long way from being a product or a company, but that’s okay,” he said.

“Our organization — the Clinical Translational Science Institute — is really about translating things from one stage to the next. It usually does not involve commercialization, but there are things that one way to translate them is through commercialization,” he said.

At the same time, “I don’t want to discourage people who don’t aspire to business,” he said. “I want people who are doing early-stage things to propose projects; I want people who don’t want to form a company, but still talk about a problem and a solution.”

Forming a company isn’t always the right way to make a solution work, he added. “We have a giant health system here, and a giant insurance company. There are a lot of ways to make things work that don’t involve someone running a company,” Maier said.

His own litmus test for a PInCh-worthy idea: “I want people to do things that will eventually help my mother.”


“We’re not just trying to give the money away, we’re trying to help the projects move to the next step,” he said, adding that it’s okay if projects have funding from other sources.

“It’s fine if it’s extending an ongoing project in a new direction,” he said. “We want this to be a place where people can propose that ‘I wish I could do this’ part, the “I can’t write that to the NIH because it would be too risky.’”

Conversely, “If it’s a brand new idea, that’s fine too,” he said.


“We’re not trying to change every professor here. We’re just trying to give people an opportunity to think about things a little differently, and maybe propose an idea that’s a little risky, and really have a chance to focus on a problem that is kind of fresh for them,” he said.

“One of the reasons we have our solicitation in this different format is to put people in a situation where they have to think about their work differently,” he said. The exercise of creating a two-minute video from scratch is far removed from the cut-and-paste of writing an NIH grant. “For a lot of people it’s a new thing to sit down and try to describe their project in a different way.”

Increased visibility is an added benefit of entering the competition. “It’s a way for us to connect research groups with other people interested in the research or people potentially who could fund them, even if we’re not able to fund them,” Maier said.

The two-minute video pitches are an accessible presentation tool for promoting innovative ideas. “It’s wonderful to be able to say to someone else who might be interested, ‘Here’s a quick video, just take two minutes,’ and you get to see what they’re doing,” he said. “People get emails all the time with the five-page white paper on ‘why my idea’s so great.’ And that takes a lot of time. If you can just click on the video and watch for two minutes, it can be really nice.”

In addition, the IT platform CTSI developed for the contest is showing its value as a tool for other organizations to use in issuing similar challenges. Maier noted as well that CTSI could manage the process for funders who would like to frame their own challenge.


PInCh won’t appeal to all faculty, and it’s not going to replace more traditional approaches to generating research dollars anytime soon. But it’s another option, he said.

“Government funding is a huge line of business here and we have talented faculty and a very supportive University. It’s going to continue to work. This is not going to displace that. This is going to complement it and help get researchers who are interested exposed to this different way of looking at things. It’s going to help to create some new partnerships that are exciting. It’s going to help to create a community of people who think this way and enjoy it. And they’ll encourage each other and grow,” Maier said.

“This is like adding some seasoning. If we can create and grow the innovation ecosystem, it’s going to be good for the faculty, good for the students, good for the region, and I think because of the level that Pitt operates on, it’s going to be good for the nation. There are going to be things that come out of Pitt that impact my mother in Arizona.”


Information on the competition is posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow