2024 12th Annual DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge

On Wednesday, April 10, 2024, the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute hosted the 12th Annual $50,000 DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge at University Crossing, Moloney Hall, Room 260 from 5- 8:30 p.m.

The event began with a networking reception and poster viewing. The ten finalist student teams showcased their projects to students, faculty, and alumni. Attendees were given “DifferenceMaker dollars” to distribute to their favorite teams for “Fan Favorite”. The teams competing for Fan Favorite were teams who participated in the Preliminary Pitch-Off.

Around 6 p.m. Neil Shortland, Professor and Faculty Fellow of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, provided welcoming remarks to kick-off the event. He then introduced Chancellor Julie Chen, who also spoke.

Afterward, from 6:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., the student teams pitched off! Each team got five minutes to pitch, followed by a five-minute Q&A session with the judges.

Once all teams pitched, the judges went into a separate room to deliberate. Meanwhile, the audience did more networking and poster viewing.

Team ZipperBuddy showing a demonstration of their idea to the judges and audience.
Brian Rist and Holly Lalos posing for a photo with teams BeanHub, RAVI, Socket Tech Solutions and Sober Solutions for Honorable Mention.

Thank you to the panel of judges:

Lorna Boucher, ’86, Manning School of Business; Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Imperative Execution
Amy Hoey, ’88, Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences; President, Lowell General Hospital
Brian Rist ’77, ’22, ’22 (H), Manning School of Business; Chairman, Rist Family Foundation
Mark Saab, ’81, ’13 (H), Francis College of Engineering; Founding Trustee, Saab Family Foundation
Bhupen Shah, ’92, Francis College of Engineering, Vice President of Engineering, Acacia Communications, Inc

At 8:30 p.m., the final awards ceremony and closing remarks took place. Holly Lalos, Director, Rist DifferenceMaker Institute welcomed everyone back. She then introduced Brian Rist, ‘77, Manning School of Business, Chairman, Rist Family Foundation. Mr. Rist announced the winners.

Congratulations to all teams!

The Campus Wide DifferenceMaker Award (sponsored by Kim and Brian Rist ’77, Manning School of Business), $6,000– SparkCell Technologies: Joshua Landis. (A company solving the issue of affordable and scalable elemental detection.)

Significant Social Impact Award (sponsored by Joy Tong Women in Business), $4,000– Zenyai: SaicharanMudiraj Banda, ArunKumar CoimbatoreDada, Julia Marino, Oluwatomisin Oladunjoye, Michael Reppucci, Palak Sharma. (AI sound software that guides users to emotional well-being through personalized AI coaching.)

Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle Award (sponsored by Enterprise Bank), $4,000– ZipperBuddy: Sandi DeRuntz and Valerie Heath. (An adaptation solution to clothing in place of a zipper for people facing dressing challenges due to mobility constraints.)

Sutherland Innovative Technology Solution Award (sponsored by Andrew Sutherland ’94, Manning School of Business), $4,000– EV Guardian: Abdullah Jasim and Amanda Mello. (Advanced safety in EV vehicles, helping to prevent EV fires.)

Commitment to a Sustainable Environment Award (sponsored by Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy), $4,000– Next Gen Testing: Levon Markosyan. (An apparatus designed to enhance the concentration of impurities in test media.)

Jack M. Wilson First Product to Market Award, $4,000– EduX: Ahmed Ibreljic, Daniel Maienza, Joseph Nguyen. (A platform for high school and college students to optimize their schedules to make sure they are graduating on time.)

Honorable Mention Award, $2,000– BeanHub: Aiman Baig, Anirban Dasgupta, Ibrahim Haroon, Emir Kaplan, Mohammad Khan and Shafaat Osmani. (AI-powered fully automated order-taking software for coffee chains.)

Honorable Mention Award, $2,000– RAVI: Jacob Breen, Daniel Kusmaul, Trevor Landurand, Ian McLeod, Alexander Nunes. (A seeing-eye robot for the visually impaired with the intent of making a more affordable and convenient alternative to seeing eye dogs.)

Honorable Mention Award, $2,000– SocketTech Solutions: Hayden Dolan, Tyler Fanuele, Coleman Nee, Caleb Oakley, Sarah O’Meara, James O’Sullivan, Nishanth Potturu, Devansh Sethia, Justin Tarnowski. (Creating and maintaining open source software and hardware, focusing on multi-device infrastructure.)

Honorable Mention Award, $2,000– Sober Solutions: John Carozza and Zachary Richard. (An app that will assist drug users in recovery, avoiding relapses, and beating addiction.)

Fan Favorite Award, $1,000– TurtleTours: Trevor Landurand, Myron Chee, Vulindsky Fanfan, Michael Fisher and Nathan Uhunsere. (An AI tour guide robot.)

Thank you to everyone who attended the 2024 12th Annual DifferenceMaker $50K Idea Challenge Finals!

To watch the $50,000 Idea Challenge, click here!

2024 Preliminary Pitch-off

On Wednesday, April 3, DifferenceMaker held its 12th Annual 2024 Preliminary Pitch-Off at O’Leary Library on South Campus. This year, 25 student teams got the opportunity to pitch their creative, innovative ideas to a panel of guest judges. Overall, 19 judges were a part of this event. At the end of the event, ten finalist student teams were announced and will be competing on April 10 at the 12th Annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge for a chance to win a portion of $50,000.

Team Socket Tech introducing themselves to team Soundwaves and preparing to pitch.

Congratulations to the ten finalist teams!

BeanHub: AI-powered fully automated order-taking software for coffee chains. 

EduX: A degree scheduling explorer using AI, unifying higher education in the United States designed for high school and university students.

EV Guardian: A device to provide advanced safety in EV vehicles to help prevent EV fires.

Next Gen Testing: An apparatus designed to enhance the concentration of impurities in test media. 

RAVI: A seeing-eye robot for the visually impaired with the intent of making a more affordable and convenient alternative to seeing eye dogs. 

Sober Solutions: An app that will assist drug users in recovery, avoiding relapses, and beating addiction.

Socket Tech: Creating and maintaining open source software and hardware, focusing on multi-device infrastructure.

SparkCell Technologies: A company solving the issue of affordable and scalable elemental detection. 

ZENYAI: AI sound software that guides users to emotional well-being through personalized AI coaching.

Zipper Buddy: An adaptation solution to clothing in place of a zipper for people facing dressing challenges due to mobility constraints.

Lastly, we would like to thank Joe Hartman, Provost & Vice Chancellor for Academic & Student Affairs for kicking-off the event and for announcing the ten winners.

Don’t forget to stop by the 2024 $50k Idea Challenge on April 10th from 5:00 to 8:30 p.m. in University Crossing, Moloney Hall, Room 260 to see the finalist student teams pitch their ideas! Also, vote for your favorite team(s) with our DifferenceMaker Dollars at the event. The team that had the most DifferenceMaker Dollars would be awarded the $500 Fan Favorite Award.

Provost Joe Hartman taking a photo with team Sober Solutions!

Register for the Idea Challenge: https://www.uml.edu/differencemaker/forms/differencemaker-event-registration.aspx

Watch the Preliminary Pitch-off 2024 video on YouTube, here!

Workshop 4: Delivering Your Rocket Pitch

On March 14, 2024, from 5:00 – 7:00 pm, Rist DifferenceMaker Institute held its fourth workshop series session at the Saab Center, Perry Atrium, North Campus. The guest presenters for the evening were Professor Cathy Levey, College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and Professor Kevin Willett, Manning School of Business.

Semi-finalist teams attended this session to learn about delivering their rocket pitch for the Preliminary Pitch-off on April 3rd. At this event, teams have a chance to advance to the $50,000 Idea Challenge Final event. The semi-finalist teams who will be pitching at the Preliminary Pitch-off are: 

Accessible Assistive Devices





EV Guardian





IntoGreat Pocket Trainer 

Irradiant Wind

Mirrored Image



RAVI (Robot for the Visually Impaired)



Shay G Productions (TBD)

Sober Solutions

Socket Tech Solutions


SparkCell Technologies

Thought Tracks 





To start off the workshop, Rist DifferenceMaker Fellow, David Vatalaro provided a recap of the past workshop sessions, which addressed topics such as Identifying Problems, Assessing Opportunities and Value Proposition, and Developing Business Models.  

Then, Professor Cathy Levey opened and discussed the content that should be addressed during the DifferenceMaker pitch presentation: the problem, opportunity, solution, needed resources, as well as being prepared for judge questions. She also spoke about additional considerations to look out for during and after the rocket pitch session. 

She then showed videos of past teams, including III Point Stick and BioBubbler pitching their idea so students would have an example to follow after learning about what makes an effective pitch. This allowed students to compare what they just learned to an actual pitch presentation that occurred. Students can watch and learn from other past pitches that are on the DifferenceMaker YouTube page, which can be utilized while practicing for the Preliminary Pitch-off.

Professor Levey speaking about developing a pitch.

To conclude the night, Professor Kevin Willet spoke about the challenge of presenting an idea. To tackle this, he discussed being confident and sharing your topic with lots of energy and passion. He also talked about having relevant pictures on each slide, as well as limiting the words per slide, which helps keep the audience engaged.

Professor Willet showing an example of a pitch from a past team.

Thank you to everyone who attended Workshop 4! Good luck to all teams pitching at the Preliminary Pitch-off on April 3 at the O’Leary Library, Mezzanine. Register for the Preliminary Pitch-off here.

Additionally, the 2024 12th Annual DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge will take place on April 10 at University Crossing, Moloney Hall, Room 260. Register for the $50,000 Idea Challenge here.

To revisit the topics discussed, watch our video, Spring Workshop Series 4: Delivering Your Rocket Pitch.

Workshop 3: Developing Business Models and Solutions

On Wednesday, February 28, 2024, DifferenceMaker held Workshop 3: Developing Business Models and Solutions at the Saab Center, Perry Atrium, from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. This session helped student teams who applied to the $50,000 Idea Challenge to focus on their idea’s solutions by piecing together their business models.

Students attending the workshop to network and work towards growing their ideas.

To kick off the night, Dave Vatalaro, Rist DifferenceMaker Fellow, Rist DifferenceMaker Institute welcomed everyone. Additionally, he provided students with information on submitting their Idea Plan, announcements for semi-finalists, and reminders to schedule a meeting for one-on-one coaching with mentors. He then introduced the guest presenter for the night, who was Professor Dr. Carter Keough, Francis College of Engineering.

Professor Keough started off by providing examples of companies such as Gillette, FedEx, Zipcar, and Pill Pack. Each are successful companies in their own way, all from various industries in today’s market. For example, Gillette makes their profit by selling cheap razor handles that go along with expensive, high quality razor blades that attach to them. This allows customers to stay loyal to their brand, as they need to continually purchase specific Gillette blades that fit the handle that they already own. 

Furthermore, Professor Keough went in depth and explained the multiple components needed to have a successful business model. She discussed factors such as the new venture timeline and each component of the business model canvas, such as customer segments, value proposition, revenue streams, and more. This allowed students to think deeply about details that will drive their ideas to success in the real world. 

After the detailed lesson, the guest presenter encouraged students to work on their business models and solutions. They utilized business model canvas poster boards and solution worksheets to assist with this process. A business model canvas glossary was also provided to each student to help refresh their memory on the information that was provided.

Students working with each other on their business models correlated with their ideas and solutions.

Thank you to everyone that joined DifferenceMaker for Workshop 3! If you are interested in learning how to further develop your project for the $50,000 Idea Challenge, recruiting new team members, and gaining new skills, please register for the final workshop this semester. Dinner will be served! 

To revisit the topics discussed, watch our video, Spring Workshop Series 3: Developing Business Models and Solutions.

Workshop 4 – Delivering Your Rocket Pitch, March 14

Workshop 2: Assessing Opportunities and Value Proposition

On Monday, February 26, 2024, DifferenceMaker held the second workshop series session to prepare students for the $50,000 Idea Challenge this semester. The topic addressed was assessing opportunities and value proposition.

To start off the event, Rist DifferenceMaker Fellow David Vatalaro opened by providing a brief recap of what occurred during the first workshop session, which highlighted identifying problems. Then, he introduced the guest presenters for the night, which were Professor Rae Mansfield, Honors College, and Professor Neil Shortland, College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

After the introduction, Professor Mansfield mentioned that while our ideas seem incredibly valuable to us, it may not be the case for potential customers and buyers. Professor Mansfield provided an example of pickle toothpaste which could be valuable to a certain person. However, at the end of the day, no one ends up purchasing it because it is not valuable to a majority of people. Assessing opportunities is important because it allows you to see if it is worthwhile creating the product before it is too late. If there are no willing buyers, the product does not fill a customer’s need or add enough value. Therefore, market research is imperative. 

Then, students were given time to write down their opportunities on the “target market opportunity” and “competition opportunity” worksheets. Students presented their work to the audience, receiving feedback from the presenters.

Students brainstorming and writing down ideas as they fill out the DifferenceMaker worksheets.
Professor Shortland presenting as the camera is recording the workshop for a reflection video.

Then, Professor Shortland presented the importance of value propositions. A value proposition demonstrates how a potential solution provides more value than what competitors are currently offering. Students broke out into groups again to work on their value propositions on poster boards, then were given the chance to share their ideas with the audience.

Thank you to everyone that joined DifferenceMaker for Workshop 2! To revisit the topics discussed, watch our video, Spring Workshop Series 2: Assessing Opportunities and Value Propositions.

DifferenceMaker Workshop 1: Identifying Problems

On Thursday, February 22nd, from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m., the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute held the semester’s first workshop session at the Saab Center, Perry Atrium! The focus for Workshop 1 was on identifying problems. Around 20 students attended to learn and network with students interested in pursuing their ideas for the $50,000 Idea Challenge.

Students and Rist DifferenceMaker Faculty Fellow networking and eating dinner at the semester’s first workshop session!

To start off, Dave Vatalaro, Rist DifferenceMaker Fellow, welcomed everyone. He provided a brief overview of the DifferenceMaker program, what to expect from the workshop series, and the agenda for the evening. He introduced the Faculty Fellows guest presenters: Professor Tom Wilkes, Kennedy College of Sciences, and Professor Kevin Willett, Manning School of Business.

First, Professor Willett explained to students what makes a “good problem.” Next, Professor Wilkes showcased examples of problems presented by past DifferenceMaker student teams. Videos of their pitches were provided to give students clarity on how to move forward. For example, a team that was highlighted was the CAT Mat pitch, presented by students Katie Muise and Michelle Mailloux, both from the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences. The problem they identified is the inability of patients to practice relearning how to walk after experiencing a medical issue. Going outside to do so isn’t the safest option, while staying indoors does not fully prepare patients to go back to the real-world.

This is an example of a team who worked diligently during their time at DifferenceMaker, as they ended up winning first place against teams such as Harvard and MIT during the Beantown Throwdown competition in 2019!

Professor Willett presenting to students on the key points to highlight while presenting the problem being addressed.

Then, a brainstorming activity took place where students were able to discuss the problems they are looking to solve with each other.

Students networking with each other and solidifying the problems they are working to solve!

Afterwards, students presented their ideas to everyone. The problems ranged from a variety of topics, such as harmful algae blooms, prosthetic devices, managing finances, drug addiction, and more.

This allowed students to network with one another and gain new connections for potential teammates. Each person/group utilized the “DifferenceMaker Problem Toolkit Worksheet” to help with narrowing the specifics of the issue at hand.

Thank you to everyone that joined DifferenceMaker for Workshop 1!

DifferenceMaker 2024 $50,000 Idea Challenge Kick-Off and Idea Hack

On January 30th, the Rist DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge Kick-Off and Idea Hack was held in the Saab Center, Perry Atrium from 5:00 – 6:30 p.m. Holly Lalos, Director, Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, opened the event by welcoming everyone and providing introductions.

Then, Provost Joe Hartman spoke about the importance of solving problems and having a social impact. Then, he encouraged all attendees to apply to the $50,000 Idea Challenge.

Next, Rist DifferenceMaker Co-Op student Nicohlas Jarek, introduced the DifferenceMaker program. He explained details for the 12th Annual $50,000 Idea Challenge taking place this semester. The 2024 DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge application is due February 12th at 5 p.m.!

After the introductory presentation, the real-life DifferenceMaker Panel and Q&A session took place! The panel consisted of members from past DifferenceMaker teams who answered questions from Holly Lalos and shared their entrepreneurial experiences with DifferenceMaker. First up was Ariel Shramko of Auto Terra Project, who won the 2021 Honorable Mention, a $2,000 award. Next up was Sandi DeRuntz of ZipperBuddy, who won 1st place in the 2023 Engineering Competition, a $2,500 award, and will automatically be advancing to the 2024 Preliminary Pitch-Off. Then, Diego King of Window Release Bars, who won the 2021 Honorable Mention, a $2,000 award, answered questions and provided advice to the student audience.

Holly Lalos asked the panelists a series of questions which gave the student audience a better understanding of the requirements to be in the DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge and more information about their startups. The audience then got the chance to ask the panelists valuable questions.

Real-life DifferenceMaker Panel members from left to right; Ariel Shramko, Sandi DeRuntz, and Diego King. Rist DifferenceMaker Director, Holly Lalos, far right, starting off the Q&A.

Following the Q&A, David Vatalaro, Rist DifferenceMaker Fellow, led the audience in the Idea Hack Activity to get students brainstorming potential ideas they could apply to the challenge. Students split up and sat at tables with a topic they were interested in for the activity.

The students started to brainstorm problems and then started to discuss possible solutions. They were able to collaborate with each other and with the DifferenceMaker Faculty Fellows. Towards the end of this activity, students shared their problems and solutions with everyone.

A group of students networking and discussing a problem to solve during an ideation activity.
A student presenting their group’s idea of solving the problem of phone apps accessing private data.

To close off this engaging event, Dave Vatalaro spoke about the next steps in getting involved in DifferenceMaker and participating in the $50,000 Idea Challenge. The $50,000 Idea Challenge application is due by February 12th at 5 p.m.

Finally, a special thank you to the students from Kookmin University in South Korea for visiting the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute at UMass Lowell! These five motivated students are hoping to start an entrepreneurial program similar to DifferenceMaker on their campus in Seoul! On their trip to the United States, they traveled to UMass Lowell touring the UML Innovation Hub in downtown Lowell, as well as the Pulichino Tong Business Center, and DifferenceMaker Central. They also joined DifferenceMaker later in the day at the Kickoff Idea Hack event!

Group of students from Kookmin University, South Korea at the Kick-Off and Idea Hack event creating a solution to a real-world problem in an ideation activity.

2023 DifferenceMaker High School Idea Challenge 

On November 29th, the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute held the 5th Annual High School Idea Challenge from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the UMass Lowell Mark & Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center. 

To kick off the event, Provost Joseph Hartman gave opening remarks. He then passed the stage to Gina Mustoe, teacher at Westford Academy, who shared inspiring words to the students about the importance of making a positive impact in the world by developing creative ideas. Next, Sara Lewis, Massachusetts DECA State Officer, gave a few words of inspiration regarding her journey and the High School Idea Challenge Eexperience to the student teams. 

Next, Holly Lalos, Director, Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, UMass Lowell, presented an overview of DifferenceMaker, sharing the benefits and opportunities the program offers.  

The judges were Kim Carman, Teacher, Upper Cape Tech, Retired, Deborah Finch, Professor, Manning School of Business, UMass Lowell, Cintya Gajardo-Véjar, Professor, Manning School of Business, UMass Lowell, and Stephanie Guyotte, Associate Director, Haverhill Innovation Hub, UMass Lowell. 

After the judge introductions, the event began. The audience was excited to hear the creative ideas from each high school student team. The schools competing include Millis High School, Woburn High School, Quincy High School, Groton Dunstable Regional, King Philip Regional High School (Wrentham, MA), Westford Academy, Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School, Nashoba Regional High School, and Chelmsford High School. Each pitching team had 5 minutes to present, followed by 5 minutes of judge Q&A. The judges deliberated after the presentations! 

1st place winning team Schwink with their advisor Gina Mustoe from Westford Academy after their pitch presentation.

Congratulations to all teams that presented and won awards! 

1st place, $500 – Devesh Khamitkar, Adam Wedlake, Griffin Lewis, and Stephen Lewis, Westford Academy – “Schwink” – a powder-based product that serves as a simple way for people to ensure they are consuming the proper daily vegetable amount.  

2nd place, $300 – Owen Keenan, Noah Sheldon, Fabyana Maitre, and Michael Nicolas, Woburn High School – “Inclusive Eats” – a partnership with food pantries to ensure that they have more culturally diverse food options. 

3rd place, $200 – Bridget Swezy, Ashleigh Guenette, Luke Anderson, and Steve Quartrone, King Philip Regional High School – “ProCaf” – a drink that includes both caffeine and protein for convenience and delicious taste.  

After the presentations, lunch was served, and round-table mentor meetings took place with DifferenceMaker teams and Co-op students and the high school teams. Each high school team had a 15-minute mentor session with the DifferenceMaker college students, in which they got the opportunity to speak with every mentor. 

A group picture of the teams, judges, and advisors who were a part of the 2023 5th Annual DifferenceMaker High School Idea Challenge.

Thank you to the past DifferenceMaker teams who volunteered their time to support and inspire the high school students: 

Vital Sensing Patch, Wynn Wiggins 
Rent Scoop, Nuno Mestre 
Rist DifferenceMaker Co-op, Madeline Gear 
Rist DifferenceMaker Co-op, Cameron Famiglietti 

Thank you to DECA Inc. and Donna McFadden, Massachusetts DECA State Advisor, for sponsoring the event prizes. Another thanks to all partnership schools and teachers involved in this collaboration. 

View a video of the event.