SDMs, Teammates Win $10,000 in MIT IDEAS Competition

SDM members of the EyeCatra team By Kathryn O’Neill
May 26, 2011

Three students in MIT’s System Design and Management Program and their teammates have won $10,000 in MIT’s annual IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge for EyeCatra, a device designed to allow self-diagnosis of cataracts via mobile phone.

"The device detects and quantifies cataracts with a compact eyepiece attached to a cell phone. With no moving parts and built from off-the-shelf components, our solution is well suited to the developing world," said Rupreet Singh Soni, SDM ’11. "It has the potential to bring affordable and accurate eye diagnostics to hundreds of millions of people."

The IDEAS Competition (the acronym stands for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, and Service) is an invention and entrepreneurship contest that rewards projects that positively impact underserved communities. EyeCatra won two prizes: a $5,000 IDEAS award and a $5,000 MIT Global Challenge Community Choice Award for receiving the most MIT votes online. MIT President Susan Hockfield congratulated the team at the awards ceremony May 3.

According to Soni, EyeCatra emerged from a class called Imaging Ventures, which he took this spring with teammates Vivin Nath, SDM ’11, and Erick B. Passos, a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab who is also a computer science professor at the Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology of Piaui, Brazil. Passos had the idea for the invention and was looking for business partners, Soni said.

"This class is a seminar and project-oriented course on the opportunities and challenges for businesses based on emergent imaging innovations," Soni said. "Vivin and I liked this project a lot because it addresses a real social problem and we thought that as business professionals we could create a streamlined business for this idea."

SDM members of the EyeCatra team that won a prize in MIT’s IDEAS competition display their winning device with teammate Alex Olwal, a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab, far left. The SDMs are, from left, Vivin Nath, Nirmalya Banerjee, and Rupreet Singh Soni.

As the project gained ground, another teammate joined the project: Nirmalya Banerjee, SDM ’11. Several eye lens technology researchers were also on the team: MIT Assistant Professor Ramesh Raskar of Media Arts and Sciences (project mentor); Alex Olwal, a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab and a research scientist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm; and Vitor Pamplona, a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

Soni said he was personally moved by EyeCatra’s potential to address blindness because he is from India, home to 32 percent of the world’s avoidable blindness cases caused by cataracts.

"Vision loss prevents millions of people from living full, independent lives. It is a key driver of illiteracy and poverty, and carries with it a significant societal stigma. Cataracts are the leading cause of avoidable blindness worldwide," he said, noting that India has 15 million blind people, the most in the world.

The EyeCatra device, which scans and maps the eye using a light scattering technique, is particularly well suited to serving remote areas because it is simple to use and only needs to be attached to a cellphone, Soni said. "[This technology is] a portable self-evaluation eye diagnostic tool for use at home, in school, at pharmacies, or in rural health clinics—anywhere an ophthalmologist is unavailable or too expensive."

The goal is to improve the early detection of cataracts and free up the limited population of eye doctors to concentrate on surgery. India has just 10,000 ophthalmologists for a population of 1.2 billion—one doctor for every 100,000 people—leaving a majority of cataracts cases undetected, Soni said.

The lessons of SDM have helped Soni throughout his work on EyeCatra. "The systems approach we learned in SDM helped us to build a processed approach to transform EyeCatra into a business that can have a social impact on the world," he said.

"The environment at MIT nurtures innovation and creativity within oneself, and SDM inculcates both leadership and the synergy of engineering and management concepts in its students," Soni said. "I’m happy to see this learning transformed into wins in these grand competitions. SDM’s whole ecosystem is helping me to become a better prepared professional for future competitive roles in industry."