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From School Science Fairs to Designing a Smartphone App That Diagnoses Malaria

These grad students designed Lifelens, an app that lets you snap picture of a blood sample to determine if it's infected with malaria.

What if you could take a picture of a blood sample with your smartphone and have an app tell you if someone has malaria. That's exactly what Lifelens, a breakthrough technology project designed by five young recent college grads and graduate students is able to do. Given the mortality rates of malaria across the developing world, the technology has the potential to save millions of lives.

The five creators of the app—Wilson To, Jason Wakizaka, Tristan Gibeau, Cy Khormaee, and Helena Xu—range in age from 23 to 31, and hail from different parts of the country. They collaborated online over the past year to design Lifelens and the app won a finalist spot in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, a technology competition for socially conscious high school and college students happening next month in New York City (we've covered other finalists here and here). I caught up with the Lifelens team to find out exactly how they got their start in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and what their plans are for distributing the app worldwide.

GOOD: When you were kids, what first inspired you to become involved in STEM?

LIFELENS: The annual science fair brought about a way to showcase some of the various interests that we, as children, wanted to pursue. From writing our first lines of code that spelled “Hello, world” to measuring gravity using rudimentary tools, being surrounded by science and technology inspired us to become involved in STEM.

GOOD: What do you think schools and governments should be doing to get more students interested in STEM fields?

LIFELENS: Students are often taught that the understanding of history affects future political landscapes, appreciation for art creates culture, and the mastery of sports and performance art can lead to fame—but there needs to be the acknowledgment that the games we stay up all night playing, devices that regulate our heartbeat, and phones that become an extension of our identity are all developed by innovators from the fields of STEM.

GOOD: How and when did you first come up with the idea for Lifelens and how long did it take you to develop it?

LIFELENS: Global health has always been a driving factor for the team. Last year, there was a team emphasis to develop solutions for the domestic health crisis around diabetes mellitus. However, after attending the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in 2010 the team learned about many of the global problems that students from other countries were addressing. Needless to say, after returning from Warsaw, Poland the team set their sights on developing technologies to help combat malaria. The project has been in development for a little less than a year and has been driven by a passion to both inspire the next generation of mobile healthcare solutions, as well as more immediate solutions in providing basic screening services to low resource environments.

GOOD: So how exactly does the app work?

LIFELENS: With the phone's camera, a user can take pictures of blood smears and do image analysis on them and count cells and map them and determine if someone has malaria.

GOOD: Do you have investors interested and what's your plan for making the app available?

LIFELENS: The team is in the final round of funding talks with two venture groups to secure early-stage funding to conduct extensive in-lab testing and on-field pilot studies. In the health care realm, medical teams from Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, West Africa, and India have expressed a strong desire to collaborate on the future direction and implementation. In the political realm, Lifelens was invited to discuss the project with government and private sector delegates at the ICT Africa Summit this October in Pretoria, South Africa.

GOOD: What are you most excited to experience at the Imagine Cup?

LIFELENS: The best part of the competition is without a doubt the opportunity to meet other teams and gain greater exposure to the issues that communities face around the world. Our team is constantly inspired by what young students are creating and incredibly honored to be amongst such a talented group of teams in New York.

We'll be interviewing our other top picks of the best student projects competing in the Imagine Cup over the coming weeks.

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