Common neurological monitoring devices known as electroencephalograms (EEGs) often don’t detect brain activity very well in people who have coarse, dense hair. Arnelle Etienne, a Black woman who wears her hair in an Afro style, was an undergraduate engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University when she began to investigate why.
Etienne posed the question to researchers and professors at CMU, who then worked with her to come up with ways to adapt traditional EEGs — which use metal discs attached to the scalp — to improve the electrical signals and readings for people of color with thick hair.
Their efforts led to the launch of Precision Neuroscopics, a firm that develops caps, clips and braiding techniques for Black patients undergoing EEGs.
On Tuesday night, the startup business won the top prize of $150,000 in the UpPrize competition, an innovation challenge funded by the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania to support ideas and tech-based solutions that address societal issues.
The focus for this year’s UpPrize competition was on innovations that promote racial or economic justice.
The winning team at Precision Neuroscopics says its products will make EEGs more accessible for Black people whose neurological conditions are frequently misdiagnosed because of their hair.
“An EEG doesn’t work on people with coarse, curly hair,” Jasmine Kwasa, the company’s chief technology officer, told an audience on Tuesday during the final pitch presentations at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. “So it’s not accessible, and that’s a problem of equity.”
Her team’s research found Black patients sometimes had to shave their heads to be tested with traditional EEGs, and were frequently excluded from neuro-clinical trials.
Pulkit Grover, a co-founder and chief visionary officer at Precision Neuroscopics and professor of electrical engineering at CMU, says Etienne’s discovery of the problem with EEGs “was equally as important as finding the solution.”
Precision Neuroscopics, which is affiliated with CMU, was founded in 2015 and is based in Oakland. The startup has conducted trials on patients at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. It’s also working on hardware and artificial intelligence technology that can bolster the efficacy of EEGs in detecting epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries, Kwasa said.
A total of 70 applications were received for the UpPrize this year and all were eligible to attend free UpPrize boot camp sessions on sales, marketing, branding, media training and how to run a social enterprise.
The UpPrize competition is administered by Innovation Works, a Pittsburgh-based investor in emerging tech startups. Since its launch in 2015, UpPrize has invested more than $2.5 million in grants and technical assistance in social innovation products and solutions.
This year’s second-place prize of $100,000 went to Meerkat Village, which has developed a platform and mobile app that allows parents of children with special needs to connect and communicate with providers, including teachers, therapists and counselors, so that they can better track a child’s progress.
The third-place prize of $50,000 went to Make It Home Safe, which markets a smartphone app that provides real-time information to drivers and police officers involved in traffic stops.
This year’s UpPrize judges were six independent volunteers from the academic, government and nonprofit sectors.
Speaking before the semi-finalists presented their three-minute final pitches, Eric Boughner, chairman of BNY Mellon Pennsylvania, said the competition “is my favorite thing BNY Mellon does in Pittsburgh” because it involves collaboration with community entrepreneurs and focuses on diversity and “ideas for social good.”