Mobile app designed by Rochester students awarded $15K in national pitch contest

A phone app developed by three recent Century High School graduates has been awarded $15,000 in seed money from T-Mobile.

The group — made up of Anjali Donthi, Sarah Bulur, and Caitlin McWilliams — won the funding during a recent pitch contest for the company’s Changemaker Challenge in Bellevue, Wash.

Their app, called Operation Serenity, offers pediatric patients who are preparing for surgery peace of mind through kid-friendly simulations. 

The team initially came together through the local chapter of Technovation, a global program that connects professional mentors to all-girl teams to enable girls to dream up, design, and code mobile phone apps.

The seed funding is just the latest accomplishment for the young entrepreneurs, all three of whom are continuing their studies in Minnesota. (Donthi and Bulur are at the U of M; McWilliams is at Carleton College.)

The app has also been named a finalist in Technovation’s global contest and in 2020 was the winner of the Congressional App Challenge.

How the app works

The origins of the app date back to 2019 when Donthi — who at the time was participating in the Mayo Clinic Young Volunteer Program — came across a scared pediatric patient who was crying in a waiting area.

Donthi responded the way many people would have: by offering the girl one of the stuffed animals that are stored behind the welcome desks.

While the girl hugged the toy tightly, Donthi knew the relief would only be temporary. She began to ponder: ‘What more could be done to ease anxiety for young patients headed into surgery?’

The team later discovered that about 3 million children undergo surgery in the U.S. each year — and 60 percent of them report feeling significant fear.

Working with a child life specialist at Mayo, the team was able to come up with the idea for a mobile app designed to help patients aged 8-15 prepare for an upcoming surgery. The app works by having patients preform their own mock simulation of the surgery — helping them visualize what will happen and relieve them of any anxieties about the unknown.

“Visuals of the surgery are difficult for medical staff to provide, and most surgery videos that can be found are way too graphic for children,” the team wrote in its grant application to T-Mobile. “Although a patient may know a little bit about their surgery, they may not be able to visualize it, leading to anxiety regarding the unknown. The visuals provided in our app are accurate, appropriate, and interactive for children.”

To ensure all ages can navigate the features, Operation Serenity includes an in-app companion known as Bobbi Butterfly, which provides text-to-speech and navigation assistance. The app also offers some personalization, allowing patients to select the hospital they are at to see the specific way the surgeons at that practice/hospital perform it. Families can also access resources for emotional support or finding events nearby.

Since they started developing the prototype for the app in September 2019, the team say they have received positive feedback from surgeons, child life specialists, and families of pediatric surgery patients. Their company, CASP Technologies, is now working on a 2.0 version of the app.

Cover photo: Left to right, Donthi, Bulur & McWilliams / submitted