Thang Vo, (from left) assistant professor Mark Faust, professor Marek Perkowski, Hung Nguyen, Hoa Nguyen, and Anh Ngo, all of Portland State University, developed a prescription drug identification device that recently won the Cornell Cup USA national design competition. The students invention beat out 23 other teams, including from top engineering schools, to win the $10,000 top prize.
Four jeans-wearing Portland State University seniors spent hundreds of hours this year building a computer-aided pill identifier to help doctors and nurses act quickly in emergencies.
The device could save lives, but that's not why they did it. Earlier this month they competed in a battle of computer-aided inventions at Walt Disney World, facing students from the nation's top engineering schools.
The four 23-year-olds returned to Portland exhausted but happy, bearing the Cornell Cup USA top prize and a $10,000 check, beating out powerhouses like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.
"We drank a lot of Coke," Hoa Nguyen said of their months of long nights.
The four were not just any students, but among two dozen Intel scholarship students from Vietnam at PSU's Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science.
The team's advisor, assistant professor Mark Faust, says the scholars were selected through tests administered at Vietnam's top technical universities. "We're getting the absolute best of the best," Faust said.
Last October, Faust sent an e-mail to engineering seniors suggesting the Cornell Cup as a senior project. Hung Nguyen, an outgoing fellow from the Vietnamese coast, promptly signed up with his friend Anh Ngo from Hanoi, a hipsterish sort with a fondness for hair product.
They soon recruited Hoa, the stocky son of a farmer outside Ho Chi Minh City, and baby-faced Thang Vo, from the highlands of Vietnam.
The PSU students device accepts a pill in its base, then produces an image using LED lighting to best capture pill imprint codes. It runs the image against databases containing 18,000 pills to find a match in 13 seconds.
The four set their mind to building a device to help medical and emergency-room staff figure out what pills their patients are using. Many emergency room patients show up incapacitated or unaware of prescription details.
With six months to make their idea a reality, it became a full-time job on top of their course load, making it hard to stay awake.
"They would come to class, but I would mostly just see the tops of their heads," Faust said with a laugh.
Their device looks like a miniature grain silo -- a white acrylic cylinder about eight inches tall. Wires connect it to two Plexiglas cubes surrounding circuit boards the students built.
The cylinder houses a camera, LED lights and a tray for inserting a pill. Inside, the lights flash in patterns to create the clearest image of the pill. Then an image-processing program of the students' design looks for matches in databases with information on 18,000 pills.
A doctor or nurse presented with an unidentified pill could spend precious minutes searching the Internet for the right shape, color and numerical imprint code, then find the drug interaction warnings to avoid harmful side effects.
The PSU students' pill identifier, in contrast, can return a result in just 13.5 seconds, displaying relevant information on a seven-inch screen.
Useful? Sure. But could it compete?
Showing up at Walt Disney World, the four PSU grads watched wide-eyed as competitors assembled engineering marvels shipped in massive Fed-ex packages.
At the next table, a four-rotor miniature helicopter lifted off menacingly. Dreamed up at the University of Pennsylvania, it uses sensors to map out 3-D models of emergency rescue locations, cutting first-responder casualties.
A couch-sized robot to custom-mix liquids for biotechnology research was entered by MIT students, while other teams exhibited working models of space-exploring robots, unmanned aerial vehicles and an obstacle-sensing belt for the blind, making seeing-eye dogs obsolete.
The PSU crew didn't think they had a chance until a judge complimented them on their 84-page project report.
In the end, underdog PSU won, with the University of Pennsylvania's helicopter drone taking second and MIT's liquid mixer third.
If you go
What: Exhibit of 17 senior projects created by students at Portland State University's Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science, including the pill-identifier invention that won the Cornell Cup USA design competition earlier this month.
Where: NW Center for Science, Engineering, Science, and Technology at 1930 SW Fourth Avenue
When: 3-5pm Friday, June 8th
More information: An example of the engineering projects, many of them requested by local companies.
Dr. Mark Bajorek, PSU's medical director, helped the students early on, donating about 40 pills to test the machine. He says the invention could automate pharmacy pill checks as well as helping hospitals.
"Any time somebody's life is in danger, saving time is really important," he said.
Faust says the students have already heard from two companies interested in the commercial applications. "I actually think they may have the possibility of several patents here," he said.
The four graduate next month. They'll hang out in the U.S. for about a week, then head home and find a place to live.
In exchange for their scholarships, they have agreed to spend the next three years working at an Intel factory outside Ho Chi Minh City.
Intel created its one-of-a-kind scholarship program at PSU for just this purpose, addressing a lack of engineering training in Vietnam. Kevin Foster, an Intel manager who works with the students, says PSU was selected from several universities because of its focus on applied engineering.
"We didn't know what to expect when we brought these kids over here," he said. "It's beat any expectations that we had."
By coincidence, Intel also sponsored the Cornell Cup as a way to energize students to study computer-based embedded design, such as in smart phones and countless other devices today. But the entries were stripped of identifiers, meaning judges were oblivious to who the contestants might be.
The four PSU seniors will split the prize money, with each share amounting to five months pay at their new jobs. But they've already donated $1,000 of it back to PSU's engineering program to support other students.
"We're very proud," said Hung. "It was a way for us to thank the university."