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One of the grants awarded by the Amazon Catalyst program in partnership with the University of Washington is for a self-driving bicycle. Credit: Amazon/University of Washington.

For students at the University of Washington and other schools in the Seattle area, learning via video lectures is a valuable — and available — tool, but that’s not true in many parts of the world.

That’s why longtime friends Jumana Karwa and Saurav Tomar came up with the idea for a project called FaceCrop, a compression program that highlights informative parts of a video and eliminates the rest. That allows users all around the world, even in remote areas without access to high speed internet, to stream high quality video.

“Online education and online streaming has become very popular, but unfortunately, due to slow speeds and massive bandwidth these videos consume, it’s virtually impossible for a lot of people in Asia, specifically India to get access to these videos,” Karwa said.

Adam Siegel, managing director of Amazon Catalyst program.
Adam Siegel, managing director of Amazon Catalyst program.

Karwa is a graduate student at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Computer Science & Engineering program, and the leader one of 12 projects that have won grants from the Amazon Catalyst program in the last year or so. The projects are being revealed publicly for the first time today.

The program debuted in 2015, and it provides grants in the range of $10,000 to $100,000 to researchers, students and faculty working to solve big problems, from climate change to disaster notification. The program started at UW as a collaboration with CoMotion innovation hub, and other universities will be added over time. These awards aren’t for conducting further research. Instead they fund solutions to problems, said Amazon Catalyst Managing Director Adam Siegel, who described the program as more akin to a special projects fund.

“Among the most important things we want to see is a clear problem identified in the world, and that the project proposed represents a potential solution to that problem,” Siegel said.

Amazon and UW representatives would not say how much each project got or the total amount awarded. So far, Siegel said, the program has received more than 160 applications. Originally, the program included a rolling application process, but Amazon and UW have switched to a quarterly evaluation system with the next deadline coming Nov. 23.

Amazon and UW have developed a close relationship over the years. In 2012, Jeff Bezos led Amazon’s commitment of two $1 million endowed professor positions in the arena of machine learning. Amazon announced last week it is putting $10 million toward a second building for the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering program. These moves help to increase the pipeline of technology talent in the Seattle-based tech giant’s hometown.

“We’ve made Seattle our home and our headquarters, and one way to help build the community is to create a community of innovators from our project winners, who we call Amazon Catalyst fellows,” Siegel said. “These are people working on some big problems in the world. By having these people locally and by having a program locally that does this, it keeps Seattle a vibrant place where people are inventing big solutions, and that benefits everybody.”

Here is a rundown of the other 12 winners so far, including project titles, courtesy of UW and Amazon:

Facecrop team Jumana Karwa and Saurav Tomar.
FaceCrop team Jumana Karwa and Saurav Tomar.

A Low Cost Device For Desalination: Chemist Guozheng Shao is developing a desalination device, using a method that relies on electricity, that will turn seawater into clean, drinkable water at a minimal cost.

OsteoApp, Personal Osteoporosis Screening via Smartphone: OsteoApp is an app for smartphones that tests bone density and tells people if they are at risk for bone disease. OsteoApp uses a vibration technique that emits a pulse from a smartphone, causing a bone to “ring” at its resonate frequency — a function of the bone’s stiffness and density. From this, OsteoApp can estimate bone density and recommend whether the user contact a physician.

MegaShake Earthquake Detector: Using GPS and seismic data, Pacific NW Seismic Network Director and UW professor John Vidale’s team is developing MegaShake, which is designed to give people a few extra seconds to minutes to prepare for big earthquakes. The team envisions USGS and NOAA using MegaShake to identify a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake and send out an alert before the worst shaking hits urban areas across California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Charcoal – The Intersection of Sustainable Forestry and Farming: Soil scientist Tom DeLuca’s team wants to use charcoal to add more carbon to soil, making it more nutrient-rich for plants. The team contends that charcoal can be sustainably produced as a byproduct of forest restoration products, and by integrating charcoal production into forest restoration projects it is possible to connect sound forest management with food security.

Slightly Robot's smartwatch-based app has people with compulsive skin disorders.
Slightly Robot’s smartwatch-based app has people with compulsive hair pulling or skin picking disorders.

Regional Climate Prediction – Enabling Society to Prepare for Climate Change: A team of climatologists led by Cliff Mass is building a sophisticated regional climate prediction system. This regional climate modeling technology will be applicable anywhere in the world, taking global climate simulations and downscaling them using high-resolution models. The result will be a state-of-the-science probability prediction of the effects of climate change.

Harnessing natural bacteria to prevent water pollution from textile dye industries: Using a newly discovered species of bacteria, Heidi Gough and Noshaba Malik of UW’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department are building a water treatment bioreactor that can detoxify dyes, which in turn will allow textile factories to reuse their own water. This will not only help eliminate the release of polluted wastewater into the environment, but also reduce a factory’s overall water usage by up to 80 percent.

Taking Vehicle Automation to Bicycles: Much of the attention is on the self-driving car, but the team led by UW Bothell faculty member in the Computer and Software Systems department Tyler Folsom is building a self-driving bike. A self-driving bike can be built at a fraction of the cost of a self-driving car, and Folsom’s model can travel about 30 mph on a 25 pound battery with a 15-mile range.

Slightly Robot – Smartwatch-based cognitive behavioral therapy for impulse control disorders: Matthew Toles, an undergraduate student in the Materials Science and Engineering Department, and Joseph Toles have developed an app that uses a bracelet or smartwatch to monitor people with compulsive habits of picking skin or pulling hair. The sensor tracks motion and position of users’ hands, and then vibrates when their hands are in a position to pull hair or pick skin. This app is designed to help the 5 percent of the U.S. population that suffers from body focused repetitive behaviors.

Using Thermal Modification to Develop the Next Generation of Outdoor Wood Products: Professor Ivan Eastin and his team are using an innovative treating process called thermal modification to create the next generation of wood products. Eastin hopes to create a robust market for hemlock, traditionally thought of as a low-value tree, to provide vital economic opportunities on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where weak demand for timber has devastated local communities.

High Altitude Aerial Vehicle for Communications and Exploration: Earth and Space Sciences faculty member Robert Winglee has designed a drone that can fly at an altitude of about 80,000 feet. It has solar panels in the wings and batteries for energy storage, meaning this drone can also stay up almost indefinitely. This high-altitude, long-range drone is designed to enable scientists to carry out remote sensing in some of the planet’s most isolated places, asking questions they never could before.

Improved processing for the widespread use of low-cost phosphorus treatment material: A team of engineers and scientists at UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters is exploring ways to use a waste product from regional drinking water to remove phosphorus from stormwater. The waste, which would typically be trucked off to a landfill, is practically free and can remove nearly all of the phosphorous from stormwater. Phosphorous pollution in lakes often encourages algal growth, which in turn produce toxins that can lead to fishing and boating restrictions or even full lake closures.

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