published Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Chattanooga tech competition spawns futuristic ideas

UTC senior Tony Cain draws out plans for a mobile emergency operation room Wednesday in the Lamp Post Group offices. His idea would allow doctors to perform robotic surgery remotely.
UTC senior Tony Cain draws out plans for a mobile emergency operation room Wednesday in the Lamp Post Group offices. His idea would allow doctors to perform robotic surgery remotely.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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GIG TANK AT A GLANCE

The student Gig Tank competition challenges young technology entrepreneurs to develop forward-thinking technologies that take advantage of Chattanooga's unrivaled gigabit Internet speed. Competitors will spend the summer forming groups and developing businesses, the best of which will win a $50,000 cash grand prize. The student competition is a sister competition to the entrepreneur Gig Tank, which attracted industry professionals to start businesses around the gigabit technology, the best of which will win a $100,000 prize.

Science fiction stories often include near-magical devices that allow instant translation of any dialect.

That space-age technology may make its way to Earth in the next few years if a Chattanooga-based tech group's dreams are realized.

Robert Derveloy, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate student, and Nicole Newman, a Dartmouth grad student, are two competitors in the technology development Gig Tank challenge. They are working to create a real-time language translation service using Chattanooga's gigabit Internet speeds.

"We want it to be behind the scenes and unobtrusive so you can just have a conversation with someone," Derveloy said.

Their idea still faces several challenges. Computers struggle to differentiate "right" from "write," and they can't quite tell if you're talking about pain in your "right hand" or looking for the "right ham" for dinner.

But using Chattanooga's unrivaled Internet speeds, computers can tap into more data to make better-educated guesses. Those programs will use context clues from the words you've used in the past. They'll also be able to tell if you're talking with someone from a grocery store and guess "ham," or from a doctor's office and guess "hand."

Though full realization of that kind of technology is likely years down the road, Derveloy hopes to have a working prototype by the time the Gig Tank competition ends in August.

And he hasn't even finished school yet.

Derveloy and 10 other graduate school students, college students and recent college graduates from around the world arrived in Chattanooga June 11 with forward-thinking ideas like Derveloy's. The students who form a group and develop the best idea by the end of the competition will win $50,000 cash.

The best groups from the competition will pitch their ideas to venture capitalists and angel investors alongside entrepreneurs in a sister competition started in May with similar goals.

Jack Studer, whose business incubator Lamp Post Group is hosting and mentoring the students, said he has been blown away with the ideas and work ethic of the competitors.

"It's going great," he said. "Some of these ideas may be close enough and real enough that we'll start companies around them immediately."

Even if companies aren't immediately sprung from the competition, Studer said he has seen several students he would like to have at Lamp Post at some point in the future.

All 11 students are getting a full summer of mentorship and resources to do what they are passionate about, something competitor Ustin Zarubin said makes the whole experience more than worthwhile.

The University of Georgia student hadn't heard of the Gig Tank competition until the day of the application deadline.

"I had a test the next day" and said forget it, he recalled.

The test was in quantum mechanics. Without studying, it didn't go so well, he said.

But now that Zarubin is working full-time on a project he's passionate about, he said he doesn't mind.

"This is a better opportunity," he said.

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