A Darien woman and two partners recently won a national challenge to develop a wearable, small, low-cost sensor that combines a person's air-quality intake and other health data, such as heart rate and breathing.

The challenge may appear daunting to some and out of reach for most.

Except that Darien's Dot Kelly, along with Gabrielle Dockterman, of Massachusetts, and David Kuller, of Milan, Italy, created such an item in eight days.

As a result, they won the My Air, My Health Challenge and the $100,000 grand prize for their wearable sensor, Conscious Clothing.

It all started when Dockterman, an acquaintance of Kelly's, attended a Harvard University event and sat next to the vice president of innocentive.com, which manages different challenges posed by various organizations that have already spent millions of research and development money on potential solutions, according to Dockterman.

"I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of different challenges on there," Dockterman said.

"These people have decided that if we have a problem that we don't exactly know how to solve, let's ask everybody and maybe someone has a good idea," said Kelly, who is a member of the Transfer Station Advisory Committee and the Swap Shop in town. The challenges don't require the physical development of the solution, but merely the idea for one. The best proposed solution wins a monetary prize. Many of the challenges are science-based, some are societal.

Both women, being mothers with children in college and looking for a challenge, joined by Kuller, who was Dockterman's former boss at the IT Media Lab, looked over the list on the website to choose a problem they felt they could solve.

It was all on a whim.

Kuller expressed interest in the My Air, My Health challenge. Within eight days, including several all-nighters, the team developed a solution and were then selected as finalists. At that point, there were already 500 contestants, made up of researchers and university research groups, that had been working on the challenge over the course of five months.

"This was the challenge," Kelly said. "Can you measure the air and measure how it affects you with a personal device that was low cost. We didn't have to do any work, we just needed to write a proposal."

Kuller's family owns the Minnesota Knitting Mill, which created a conductive stretchy material that was initially made to protect lab workers from electrical shock. Kelly said Kuller thought that a conductive stretchy material could be used to measure heart rate based on the expansion of the chest.

"When we met with the judges after phase one, they told us that they thought our idea was the most innovative, but they didn't think they could get it to work," Dockterman said.

The next stage, if the team wanted, was to make a proof of concept for Conscious Clothing. Kuller got to work in his basement to create the device. By attaching a stretchy, conductive material and a small commercial device that measured the air quality, the Conscious Clothing was created.

The way innocentive.com works, Kelly said, is that winners are not required to invest their prize money into their product if they don't want. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Health Services Agency suggested they apply for a small-based innovation research grant to bring the product to commercialization.

The conductive knit, Dockterman said, has far more applications than Conscious Clothing, including monitoring babies in hospitals, measuring breathing during yoga and training for athletes.

As for whether or not Dockterman intends to pursue other challenges, "I've definitely got my eye out."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews

More Information

Fact box