Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Business/Economics (Page 2 of 6)

Walla Scores Grand Prize at 17th Annual Start-Up Challenge

The finalists of Duke’s 17th Annual Start-Up Challenge have found time between classes, homework, and West Union runs to research and develop pitches aiming to solve real-world problems with entrepreneurship. The event, hosted last week at the Fuqua School of Business, featured a Trinity alum as the keynote speaker. Beating out the other seven start-up pitches for the $50,000 Grand Prize was Walla, an app founded by Judy Zhu, a Pratt senior.

Judy Zhu and the Walla team pose with their $50,000 check, which is giant in more ways than one.

Judy Zhu and the Walla team pose with their $50,000 check, which is giant in more ways than one.

Walla aims to create a social health platform for college students by addressing widespread loneliness and creating a more inclusive campus community. The app’s users post open invitations to activities, from study groups to pick-up sports, allowing students to connect over shared interests.

Walla is closely tied with Duke Medicine by providing data from user activity to medical researchers. User engagement is analyzed to supply valuable information on mental health in young adults to professionals. The app currently features 700 monthly active users, with 3000 anticipated within the next month, and many more as the app opens to other North Carolina colleges.

Tatiana Birgisson returned to Duke to talk about her own experiences creating a business while an undergrad that won the Start-Up Challenge in 2013. Birgisson’s venture, MATI energy drink, was born out of her Central Campus dorm room and, through the support of Duke I&E resources, became the major energy drink contender it is today, as a healthy alternative to Monster or Red Bull.

The $2,500 Audience Choice award went to Ebb, an app designed to empower women on their periods by keeping them informed of physical and emotional symptoms throughout the course of their cycles, and creating a community through which menstruating women can receive support from those they choose to share information with.

Tatiana Birgisson won the 2013 startup challenge with an energy drink brewed in her dorm room, now sold as MATI.

Tatiana Birgisson won the 2013 startup challenge with an energy drink brewed in her dorm room, now sold as MATI.

Other finalists included BioMetrix, a wearable platform for injury prevention; GoGlam, an application to connect working women with beauticians in Latin America; Grow With Nigeria, which provides engaging STEM experiences for students in Nigeria; MedServe; Tiba Health; Teraphic.

This year’s Start-Up Challenge was a major success, with innovative entrepreneurs coming together to share their projects on changing the world. Be sure to come out next year; I’ll post an invite on Walla!

devin_nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma

Beauty is in the Ear of the Beholder Too

Just the suggestion that an African-American person is of mixed-race heritage makes that person more attractive to others, research from Duke University concludes.

Reece_imageThis holds true even if the people in question aren’t actually of multiracial heritage, according to the peer-reviewed study, published in the June 2016 issue of Review of Black Political Economy.

The simple perception of exoticism sways people to see multiracial blacks as better-looking, says study author Robert L. Reece, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Duke.

“Being exotic is a compelling idea,” Reece says. “So people are attracted to a certain type of difference. It’s also partially just racism – the notion that black people are less attractive, so being partially not-black makes you more attractive.”

Reece used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. He examined the results of in-person interviews of 3,200 black people conducted by people of varying races. The interviewees were asked a series of questions that included their racial backgrounds. The questioners then ranked each person’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the least attractive and 5 being the most attractive. The interviewees who identified as mixed race were given an average attractiveness rating of 3.74; those who identified as black were given a 3.47 score – a statistically significant difference that points to the power of perception, Reece says. (The study controlled for a number of factors such as gender, age, skin tone, hair color and eye color)

“Race is more than we think it is,” he says. “It’s more than physical characteristics and ancestry and social class. The idea that you’re a certain race shapes how people view you.”

And attractiveness matters. Previous research has drawn correlations between physical beauty and professional success.

Robert Reece is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Duke.

Robert Reece is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Duke.

Reece’s findings bolster a viewpoint that lighter-skinned blacks are considered more physically striking than their darker-skinned counterparts. But his research also found that blacks with darker skin who identified as mixed-race were considered better looking than those with lighter skin who identified simply as black. This further emphasizes the power of suggestion, Reece says; being told a person is of mixed race – regardless of what that person looks like – makes them appear more attractive.

“It’s a loaded cognitive suggestion when you say ‘I’m not just black, I’m also Native American, for example,” Reece says. “It changes the entire dynamic.”

Reece tackled this topic to examine the connection between multiraciality and “color,” he says.

“People tend to assume that historical multiraciality is at least partially responsible for the broad range of color among black people,” he says. “I’ve even noticed some people in black communities casually using the terms “mixed” and “light skinned” interchangeably. So I wanted to begin an empirical investigation into the contemporary links between the two and how they combine to shape people’s life experiences. Attractiveness is one part of that.”

Ferreri_100Guest post by Eric Ferreri

From Idea to Impact: Salman Azhar Brings Silicon Valley Mentality to Duke

An idea cannot be inherently good or bad, argues Salman Azhar, Entrepreneur in Residence, Associate Professor of Computer Science, and alumnus of Duke University. Instead, the success of an idea hinges on the steps an entrepreneur takes in the conversion from an idea to a plan.

On October 14, Azhar explained to students the evolution of a tech start-up from the idea phase to conception.

facebook-vs-myspaceAzhar emphasized implementation details over the idea itself, citing the example of MySpace and Facebook: neither is conceptually better than the other, yet today, only Facebook stands successful.

Azhar introduced the Duke students to the Silicon Valley mindset, a set of conventions and pieces of advice to make it in the competitive world of start-ups. Azhar himself has expertise in the entrepreneurial round, citing his two successful start-ups. Now he has chosen to dedicate his time to giving back and encouraging the future generation of young people to put their ideas into action.

Azhar began his talk by probing students to consider motivation, to ask themselves at their cores why they should join the start-up world. He urges, “Don’t lie down” and work for established companies like IBM, Microsoft, or even Google– rather, try something on your own. Azhar points out that the challenges involved at a start-up exceed in scope those one might otherwise face, which may be limited to converting functional specifications into code.

“Brand yourself,” he said. Create an image of yourself, just as Apple creates one for its products. A brand, he notes, is a representation of one’s unique view of the world. The creation of a brand, ironically enough, ought to come from a certain degree of introspection. Such introspection should additionally serve to seek out complementary partners with whom to start a company.

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 1.39.32 PMIn a guidebook-like manner, Azhar outlined the major  concerns of a start-up process, including bringing an idea to pitch, obtaining funding and defining an exit strategy.

He emphasized the three rules for start-ups: 1. Don’t use your own money, 2. Don’t use your own money, and 3. Don’t use your own money.

He used Swyp, a start-up for alternative payment, to demonstrate examples of technical risks and business risks. In regard to the latter, he questions, “Why will the people pick your company?” And even, “Why will they make a decision?” challenging one to think about how to create a product  compelling enough to move consumers to act.

After doling out tips on approaching investors for funding and  explaining funding rounds, Azhar again returned to the question of the practicality of ideas. With respect to a decision between selling the startup or going public in an IPO, Azhar asserts that the only reason to go for an acquisition is if you run out of ideas, or if someone else can execute your idea better than you can.

Thus, Azhar presents the creation of start-ups as idea management, if you will. Only with such a practical approach can one hope for the survival of his idea in the rough and tumble of Silicon Valley.

By Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

SiNON Overcomes Barriers to Win Grand Prize

In order to win Duke’s 16th annual Start-Up Challenge, Afreen Allam only had to cross the blood-brain barrier.


Entrepreneur, angel investor, and Duke parent Magdalena Yesil opening the event.

Amongst a pool of entrepreneurs selling raw desserts, footwear, and online education programs, her patented neurological treatment impressed the judges enough to earn her the Wickett Family Grand Prize.

The Start-Up Challenge is a year-long entrepreneurship competition with an entry pool of over 100 student teams. Throughout the year, participants get weeded out, down to the final nine teams. The Grand Finale was held in the Fuqua School of Business on Sept. 30.

Finalists were given four minutes to pitch their idea in the hopes of winning $50,000. And for Ms. Allam, that dream came true.

Her company, SiNON, will use the prize money to continue developing her product, a patented nanoparticle that encapsulates drugs to be delivered to the brain. Her research began in her third year as an undergraduate student at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She delved into chemistry research, developing technologies with carbon nanotubes with the intention of creating an alternative to chemotherapy to battle cancer. She was encouraged to create a patent for her work, a process she initially didn’t know anything about but underwent anyway, receiving it about a year and a half ago.

Afreen Allam (holding giant check) with her friends, family and $50,000 in winnings.

Now a student at Fuqua, the direction of her research changed last summer, when Ms. Allam began focusing more on neurological diseases after discovering that her nanoparticle was able to cross the blood-brain barrier, something only 2 percent of drugs can do. Her current product, SiNON, works to increase the effectiveness of neurological treatments, as well as reducing associated side effects.

She said the funding from the Start-Up Challenge will help her company conduct feasibility studies to allow her to approach biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

Trailer Parks and Weird Socks: Economist Charlie Becker

“Do you know what a trailer park* is?” Professor Becker smiled as he threw the question across the dinner table during a FINvite.

“Yes,” I paused, somewhat defensively, “I lived in one.”

The trailer home where I spent my teenage years. An elusive façade of affordability.

“Oh…,” He had a look on his face that I would never forget, a curious, deliberate gaze. “Well, why don’t you come research for me?”  And that, kids, is how you get a research job.

Thus began the story of how I became a trailer park research enthusiast with Dr. Becker. (Actually we just call him Charlie.)

*For our purposes, trailer parks = mobile homes = manufactured housing

Due to increasing demand for affordable housingabout 20 million Americans live in mobile homes even though trailer park management might be anything but fair. Here’s how it works:

In a community like this, tenants typically own the manufactured structures that are their homes (Homeownership! The American Dream!) but not the land under it, and once they’re dropped off, mobile homes are not very mobile because it costs about $3,000 to relocate.

The low-to-moderate income tenants are often subjected to increasing monthly land rents after being lured in by the predatory sales practices, at which point they often can’t afford to relocate to another park (that could have exploitative rents anyway).

Here’s how Charlie explains it (2:27 Video):

How could anyone voluntarily subject oneself to living with such fishy property rights?

Caitlin Gorback (Duke ’11), who recently left the NY Federal Reserve for the Wharton School of business, wrote a thesis on trailer parks economics under Charlie Becker’s mentorship to answer this very question.

Photo Credit: Duke Economics

Gorback modelled the mixed-ownership method to explain how the tenant-owned-house and park owner-owned-land arrangement might maximize profit and utility for both owners and tenants: The park owners benefit from not having any toilets to fix because the tenants own the housing structures. The tenants benefit from sharing a form of governance because the park owner who owns the land has the authority to control unruly neighbors.

This creates the possibility of a mutually-beneficial scenario, where the management provides the governing structure needed to maintain a homogenous tenant base within trailer parks. This is beneficial for tenants, since they typically prefer neighbors with similar habits. So it happens that there is within-park homogeneity and inter-park heterogeneity, such as retiree trailer parks, family-friendly trailer parks, and so on. Wow! Science.

Charlie first got into trailer parks after witnessing a horrendous case of mismanagement first-hand. A relatively large trailer park changed hands shortly before the financial crisis. After suffering substantial losses and being barred from reselling, the new owner sought revenge by doubling rents, devastating the tenants. “It’s a tough story,” he said, “and also interesting to an economist… where else do you find people entrusting a valuable asset to someone else who might render it worthless?”

Before his obsession with trailer parks research, Charlie has consulted for The World Bank, advised the government of Kazakhstan on social security, and helped fix the higher education system in Ukraine by chairing the International Academic Board.

Stay tuned for Charlie’s forthcoming book with Caitlin and research with Ashley Yea on trailer park valuation and nearby apartment rents. In the meantime, check out why Charlie endorses President Obama’s plan of racially integrating neighborhoods and read up on his do’s and don’ts of purchasing a home.

You can also find Charlie busy running the unique Master of Science in Economics and Computation (MSEC) at Duke, teaching Urban Economics to undergraduates, or masterfully making fun of his students’ socks.

Exhibit A:


By YunChu Huang, Duke 2016

Duke co-hosts THInC: Triangle Health Innovation Challenge

Blue Devils and Tar Heels may be rivals on the court, but there is little doubt they can be partners in research and innovation.


Participants broke into teams, and spent the weekend working on their solutions.

Last weekend, the Duke School of Medicine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Activity Group and the Carolina Health Entrepreneurship Initiative jointly organized the first ever Triangle Health Innovation Challenge (THInC), a 48-hour ‘hackathon’  that brought together students, clinicians, engineers, and business people from around the Triangle to collaborate on solving problems in healthcare and medicine.

The organizers wanted to tap into the collective knowledge of the Triangle to tackle healthcare problems in novel ways, and to engage individuals who did not necessarily see themselves as healthcare innovators.

“We realized that the Triangle has an immense pool of academic, clinical, and technical talent, but these groups of people rarely interact,” said co-organizer Tanmay Gokhale, an M.D./Ph.D. student in Biomedical engineering at Duke. “We wanted to bring them all into the same room and empower them to make a difference in healthcare.”


Teams had the chance to meet with mentors, who advised them on their ideas and business strategies.

On Friday, the first evening of the event, 127 participants pitched 44 different healthcare problems, proposed 25 solutions, and broke into 15 teams that were, for the most part, interdisciplinary and involved members from across the Triangle.

Many Pratt School of Engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, participated in the event, and several were members of  winning teams.

Each team worked through the weekend, designing and creating a product that delivered on a proposed solution. The projects ranged from evaluating treatment and clinic options for patients through a mobile app, to informing future patients by crowdsourcing opinions and advice from people who had experienced similar medical situations.


Teams, judges, and audience members gathered in the Trent Semans Center for Health Education on Sunday afternoon for the final presentations.

The ingenuity and quality of the solutions that were presented on Sunday afternoon was stunning; each team had drawn from their own firsthand experiences with the shortcomings and challenges of the healthcare system to deliver targeted, nuanced products that tackled meaningful issues.

In a time-cap of three minutes, each team presented the fruits of their weekend of hacking, and were judged not only on their creativity and technical complexity, but also on clinical and business feasibility. Four winners were awarded $13,000 in cash and credits to work with the API (programming interface) of Validic, a Durham company that collects de-identified patient data from medical devices, wearables and apps.

Team Tiba, the winner of the grand prize, created a wearable physical therapy activity tracker to ensure that patients performed their physical therapy exercises regularly and correctly.

Team Breeze, winner of the runner-up prize, presented a smart lung function trainer and app to encourage pursed-lip breathing exercises in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Team Leia, the winners of the Mosaic Health Solutions prize, developed a digital to-do list for physicians, which integrated intimately with stores of data in order to send live push notifications about patient updates and prioritize different actions for different studies. The team hoped to improve

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

patient and physician satisfaction as well as patient safety, by assuring that doctors were up to date on conditions and constantly in sync with changes and improvements. Their prototype piggybacked off of current medical APIs, and queried existing data, making it easy for the roughly 150,000 clinicians who already store their data online to easily transition to the app.

Given the immense success of THInC, the organizers said they’re already planning to do it again next year. They’d like to recruit more students as well as more professional developers and programmers so that more teams could come away with a functioning prototype of their solution.

For any questions regarding the event, or planning, promoting, or executing next year’s event, please contact info@thincweekend.org. Interested individuals can also join the Health 2.0 NC Triangle group to participate in other similar events and meet similarly minded people in the area – all are welcome!

Anika Ayyar_100Post By Anika Ayyar

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