Since 2013, the Innovation Institute has been collaborating with healthcare providers and the general public to bring new ideas to market that help transform care delivery. This year, the Institute tested out a new kind of collaboration, partnering with UCI students working on senior capstone projects. In particular, its Innovation Lab sponsored two student teams through the Informatics Senior Design Project course in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) and sponsored a third student team through Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Samueli School of Engineering.

“We take ideas and early-stage concepts from caregivers and other physicians [and] then we put them through our rigorous process to evaluate the opportunity of bringing a new product or service to market,” explains Suzy Engwall, National Director of the Innovation Lab. “We identified a handful of submissions in the queue to bring forward for student teams to consider for their capstone projects.”

First, there was Team Chubby Cats, who worked to address noise pollution in hospitals in real time. The project was sponsored by Mohammad Otahbachi of Covenant Health System.

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Informatics capstone students working on Noise Pollution in Hospitals in Real Time: (from left) Anna Takei,  Tiffany Saelinh Wong,  Particia Ruiz Gonzalez, Matthew Choi, Frank Pena, and Alessandro Maclaine.

Then another idea, which we will expand on here, was from Adam Gold, Chief Technology Officer at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). “I had been carrying around the idea for a while, probably close to six or seven years,” he says, referring to his vision of a mobile app to help children with autism and their parents manage everyday tasks. “I think it hit me one day when I realized the power of mobile devices and the level of engagement they inspire with children.”

So the goal of the capstone project for this team of six ICS students — Ahaz Bhatti, Archita Ganesh, Genesis Garcia, Danielle Muhlenberg, Om Mungra and Akshita Nathani — was to design a product that would bring Gold’s vision to life. The result is PengWin, an app featuring a friendly looking penguin that guides children through daily routines while providing positive reinforcement and feedback to parents.

Informatics capstone students working on PengWin: (from left) Ahaz Bhatti, Archita Ganesh, Genesis Garcia, Danielle Muhlenberg, Om Mungra and Akshita Nathani.

Designing PengWin


The team started by doing their homework. “User research is an essential part of the design process to be able to cultivate empathy for the target audience,” explains Nathani, a recent informatics graduate who is now interning as a product designer at cybersecurity company Proofpoint and hoping to continue solving problems at the intersection of technology and people. She notes that through surveys and interviews, the team “managed to get some great insights that helped us create a user-focused app.” To avoid scope creep, the team decided to focus on those with high-functioning autism. “In addition, we had to be mindful of features such as parental controls as well as UI decisions like the use of colors, fonts and a gender-neutral character.”

Based on their research, the team created “personas” to represent various users and their needs.

Their resulting application appears in an online demo. “The designers were able to design a product from start to finish — from user research and stakeholder interviews to bringing everything to life with sketches turned to high-fidelity mock-ups and interactive prototypes,” says Muhlenberg, another recent informatics graduate who is interning as a software engineer at Microsoft and whose research has focused on computer science education for underprivileged youth. “The development team pushed themselves out of their comfort zones by learning the ins and outs of a new framework; building out a large, well-structured database in SQL; and taking on the challenge of implementing a fully functional image recognition system.”

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A storyboard for the app’s image recognition functionality (left) and the login screen for the app (right).

Image recognition was used to help parents confirm task completion, but the team also viewed it as an engaging activity for the kids. “We tried to do this in a way that allows kids with autism to have fun and stay engaged while completing their basic everyday activities such as brushing teeth or wearing shoes,” says Garcia, a first-generation American who, after earning her degree in software engineering in winter, hopes to help underrepresented communities learn STEM subjects. “We use image recognition so that parents can ensure their child has completed a task, but also so that kids can have fun with their cameras!” The app also lets parents easily customize routines to their child’s specific needs through the use of images, videos, and descriptions.

While the team faced many challenges, including a global pandemic that forced the entire university to move to remote learning, they persisted. “We embraced our challenges as a team, kept up a strong work ethic, communicated consistently, and learned from each other to push through and create a wonderful product that can ultimately help change the way children with autism are motivated to perform activities and routines,” says Ganesh, who is interning as a software engineer at Microsoft this summer and will be graduating in the fall.

Through her involvement as the EVP of UCI’s Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS) and a previous mentor for AppJam+, Ganesh says she has been inspired to help empower women and children from underrepresented communities with technology.

“Working with The Innovation Lab gave us an opportunity to integrate our diverse skill set in design and computer science with the real world in the healthcare industry,” says Mungra, who graduated this spring and is now looking for a job in consulting, software engineering, or software design while growing his platforms in photography and videography. “We resonated with their purpose of helping others and were able to channel that energy into our application.”

Delivering for the Innovation Lab

According to Engwall, the collaboration with UCI has paid off. “We’re already looking for projects for next year,” she says. “The students have been fabulous.”

The capstone projects provide an avenue for Innovation Lab to research and build low-cost proofs of concepts. “For us, one of the big benefits is we can get to a minimum viable product for testing,” notes Engwall. “This approach provides a cost-effective way to advance products through early stages of development.”

In addition to potential products, Engwall says the capstone course offers connections to potential employees. “We’re also providing first-hand experience to these students, and another benefit for us is the opportunity to potentially hire someone from one of these student teams after they graduate.”

Gold was similarly impressed with the students and their talent. “Working with the UCI team was truly an amazing experience,” he says. “I was fascinated how they could take an idea from concept to completion in such a quick manner.” He then adds, “who knows, I might just be working for one of them someday.”

President and CEO of The Innovation Institute Joe Randolph expressed his appreciation saying, “I am impressed with the creativity and dedication these student teams brought to the Innovation Lab to design and develop two promising medical devices. I am truly thankful for their contributions to health care innovation.”

If you are interested in sponsoring a capstone project, contact Informatics Professor Hadar Ziv.