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Invention from rejection: dominating hackathons à la Michael Jordan
Jay Desai of Emory College of Arts and Sciences

Jay Desai is known at Emory and through international hackathons for pairing tech skills with a knack for repurposing common materials. The result? Inexpensive inventions that solve sticky medical problems.

— Emory Photo Video

Much like NBA superstar Michael Jordan found limitless motivation after getting cut from his high school basketball team, Jay Desai used early rejection to drive his success in hackathons and inventing medical devices using common, repurposed materials.

One defining moment was reaching the Science Bowl national finals in middle school, then failing to make his high school’s Science Bowl team as a freshman. 

“I was a little salty,” he admits. “I was like, ‘I’m going to show them.’”

The next year he became team captain and won the state title.

At Emory — first at Oxford, then on the Atlanta campus — he has channeled his tech skills and knack for repurposing common materials to create inexpensive inventions that solve sticky problems in science and medicine.

“You would never realize this guy is taking down entire teams of scientists from Google in contests of innovation and creativity,” says his adviser Anita H. Corbett, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Biology.

At the Emory School of Medicine, Desai’s problem solving has aided research in disease diagnoses and stroke rehabilitation.

“Jay is looking like he might ultimately be a player in digital pathology, which is going to basically change the way we render diagnoses,” says Geoffrey Smith, Emory’s director of pathology informatics and assistant professor of pathology.

Is this guy for real? Michael Borich, principal investigator of Emory’s Neural Plasticity Research Laboratory, says he asked himself that question when Desai explained SensiGlove, his $50 prosthetic arm sleeve that gives amputees with prosthetic arms a realistic sense of touch through haptic feedback technology.

“I was like, ‘I don't think people can do that’ about some of what Jay was doing,” Borich says. “Over time, though, I've been very impressed.” 

Desai credits his success to his relationships, especially those from his time at the close-knit Oxford campus. He served as a tutor and resident advisor there.

“He has taken classes ranging from Japanese to Sexuality and Religion to Introduction to Politics,” Corbett notes. “I imagine his broad education and interest in gaining knowledge across fields has contributed to his international success in hackathons. This is the value of the liberal arts education.”

Case in point: Recently Desai was designing IntelliCool — an anti-heat stroke invention — for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cooling Solutions Challenge, when parts didn’t arrive.

“Over a few hours, he put together a really cool cooling mechanism using a mini-fridge pump,” says hackathon partner Ian Wang. “Tell me something that’s more MacGyver than that. I didn’t even know he knew how to do anything like a prosthetic arm, and he almost won a big hackathon in China with it.”

Raising MacGyver

Desai told his story during a Zoom break from creating LifeHawk — which tracks firefighters inside a burning building — for a U.S. Department of Commerce hackathon problem. He taught himself ultra-wideband and LoRa technology to build a high-accuracy tracking system reliant on communication between radio beacons on each firefighter, a drone and other first responders. 

He already earned $5,500 toward a prototype from the U.S. Department of Commerce and secured a partnership with the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department to chase more than $1 million in funding.

He also landed a Google grant in 2021 to establish TechInMed, bringing students together with tech resources for medical innovations, including a novel robotic microscope system. 

How does a mind like Desai’s develop?

“Elon Musk is great, but my dad is why I am where I am today,” says Desai. His dad Prag is an electronics engineer who taught Desai advanced math nightly; his mom Nehal is a medical technologist who loves science.

From Prag came the constant question: “How do I better approach this problem?” It’s a question Desai seeks to answer.

Turned away by 30 Emory labs

As the clock ticks, hackathon participants must develop and pitch a prototype. The more difficult the challenge, the greater the competition and prize money. Each year, Emory students host the Southeast’s largest business hackathon, HackATL.  

HackATL 2019 was Desai’s first hackathon. When he almost won, “that’s when he started on this crazy streak,” Wang says. “I don’t want to say he has a chip on his shoulder now, but initially that was certainly a big part of it.”

On Devpost, a social network for hackathon competitors, Desai’s current results page is dotted with gold trophy icons. In two dozen events, he placed in all but two — mostly competing alone.

In spring 2020, though, while Desai quarantined at home, more rejections came. As a pre-med student, he wanted research experience. After sending 30 cold emails to Emory labs, he received 30 rejections.

Desai’s pitch needed work. “I didn't have much to offer them,” he says. “So I started learning how to code in all these languages and build skills that are in high need.”

Disease detection: 90% accuracy for less than $100

He shadowed hospital pathologists who pored over slides of cells to identify patterns of disease. Couldn’t AI help or even do that better? With less than $100 of materials, Desai made a machine to detect malaria in blood smears. 

Aiming to do the same for cervical cancer cells in pap smears, Desai cold-emailed pathologist Geoffrey Smith. His ask was typical of medical students, residents or fellows. But “Jay’s device was with consumer electronic equipment and almost no budget,” Smith says. “To put this in perspective, we just deployed slide scanners that each cost $300,000.”

Desai joined Smith and cancer researcher Gabriela Oprea-Ilies, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.

“It wasn’t so much us telling Jay what to do as Jay telling us what he needed to do this project that he had already scoped out,” Oprea-Ilies says. “Computational image processing is one of the hardest things we do in the pathology laboratory, and Jay is successful as an undergraduate.”

Desai presented results of his malaria device — and its 90% accuracy — at the 2021 American Society of Cytopathology Conference.

“I was really honored,” he says. “I went from not getting a single research position to speaking at a conference with graduate medical students and doctors.” 

He also presented research on his AI-based, low-cost robotic system that can screen for cervical cancer, which is especially important in underserved rural areas. The project finished third in the 2021 Microsoft Azure AI Competition, earning Desai publicity on Microsoft’s developer website and $4,000 to further develop his idea.

Always something up a sleeve

Last summer, Desai applied his research experience and engineering knowledge to develop a low-cost, 3D-printed myoelectric prosthetic arm for amputees, which he submitted to the 2021 China-U.S. Young Maker’s Competition. He was one of 10 U.S. finalists invited to compete at the international competition, where he finished second overall against teams of scientists, engineers and professors. The $4,500 prize, like others, helped pay for materials and equipment for the next competition.

“It was tough because I do this alone,” he says. “It feels exhilarating, but at the same time I always end up being the underdog at these contests. I’m not even a computer science major!”

In 2021 he also finished first and won $5,000 in the Microsoft Azure U.S. Hack for Accessibility by developing BlueSight, a $15 device that helps blind students better study and navigate campus.

He aced the MCAT and plans to enter medical school after a gap year. Without a medical degree, he says he can’t fully “address inefficiencies and problems in the medical space.”

“If we could keep him here in the lab forever, we would lock him up, because he could do a lot here,” Borich says. “But I have no doubt that Jay is going to be at the center of leveraging technologies in health care.”

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