From left, Emily Randolph, '19, Lena McDonnell, '18, Brooke Glassman, '19, Philanthropist Anu Jain, Cameron Cipriano, '21, Michael Wu, '20, and Matthew Ciolino, '18, pose for a photo at Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE competition. They were the only team composed of undergraduate students. (Courtesy of Brooke Glassman)

Lehigh engineering team advances to final round of $1 million safety competition


Lehigh extended its global reach last week as members of Soterra, a team of undergraduate engineers, traveled to Mumbai, India, and returned as one of five remaining teams in the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE competition.

First prize is $1 million.

According to the XPRIZE website, the goal of the of the competition — which is open to all ages, genders and fields of study — is to “challenge teams to leverage technology to empower communities with a transformative solution that ensures women’s safety.”

Designs are required to silently trigger an emergency alert within 90 seconds and must cost less than $40 to manufacture. They are meant to connect at-risk women — predominantly in developing nations — to emergency services as quickly and discreetly as possible.

Lena McDonnell, ’18, the team president of Soterra, said since most users of the device will not have smartphone access, team members decided a dynamic mesh network was the only way to make a device inexpensive and usable.

The competition, which began with 85 design entries last April, was narrowed down to 21 teams for the semifinals in India last week. It was there that members of the Lehigh team learned their model was one of the top five advancing to the final round at the United Nations this June.

McDonnell said the team spent countless sleepless nights developing a 40-page report with detailed technical information, as well as a fully functioning version of their model for the semifinals.

Making it into the finals was just so exciting because we got the immediate feedback that what we were doing was on the right path, and there were people in the industry that really liked to see what we were doing,” said team member Jonathan Sphar, ’19.

The team includes 17 Lehigh students from various focuses in engineering, ranging from first-year students to seniors. Members said it was especially validating to make it this far in the competition, since they are the youngest team competing.

Aside from also being the only team of solely undergraduate students, team member Brooke Glassman, ’19, said the group chose an unusual design that is smaller than the palm of a hand and can be attached to any piece of clothing with its small clip located on the back.

“Jewelry was a very common theme, but we really didn’t want to do something that is worn outwardly because if the situation of abuse is in the home, the attacker would most likely notice and take the device away,” Glassman said.

Now that the team members have proven the capabilities of their technology, McDonnell said they are looking to finalize the design and get it to market.

Regardless of the outcome of the XPRIZE competition, members of Soterra are confident their technology has the potential to extend and improve lives worldwide.

“Our goal from the beginning has always been to get our technology out into the hands of those who need it, in any way possible,” McDonnell said. “That continues to be our goal and what we are striving toward.”

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