Graduate team wins $10,000 to develop device for marijuana testing


Cannibuster team

Cannibuster team members Mariam Crow and Kathleen Stitzlein are pictured here with Anthony Margida, chairman of LaunchTown Leadership.

Five finalists vied for a $10,000 cash prize April 23 at the ninth annual LaunchTown Entrepreneurship Awards at The University of Akron. Teams of graduate students from The University of Akron, Kent State University and Case Western Reserve University presented their ideas to judges who decided the winner of the prize package of cash and advisory services provided by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

The prize was won by UA’s Cannibuster team members Kathleen Stitzlein and Mariam Crow, who are developing a device that allows law enforcement to check levels of THC  — a chemical found in marijuana — with a quick, accurate roadside device, getting the results in minutes instead of weeks.

With Ohio looking to be the fifth state this November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, it will face the same dilemma as Alaska, California, Colorado and Washington: How can law enforcement officers keep roads safe from drivers under the influence?

Technology to fill a void

While these states have set legal limits for levels of THC, the active chemical in marijuana, in drivers (less than 5 nanograms), the technology to accurately measure levels of the chemical roadside does not exist.

Enter the Cannibuster — a novel, microfluidic device that uses noninvasive saliva testing and lab-on-chip technology to detect THC levels in a matter of minutes. Stitzlein, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, and Crow, a postbaccalaureate biomedical engineering student, under the mentorship of Dr. Brian Davis, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, are developing the device they call Cannibuster.

Stitzlein says current point-of-care devices can only determine the presence of THC, not the concentration of the chemical in the bloodstream.

“Today if a driver is suspected of impaired driving due to marijuana, law enforcement officers must call an EMS to the scene or take the driver to a local hospital for bloodwork,” says Stitzlein. “Lab results can take up to six weeks to come back, which is clearly not ideal.”

The Cannibuster would provide law enforcement officials with a quick, accurate roadside method to detect levels of THC.

“Kathy is the perfect example of what’s possible when our students look for engineering solutions to medical problems,” says Davis.

Ben Kent and Vatani Morteza

Ben Kent, left, and Vatani Morteza, Ph.D. candidates in mechanical engineering, came in second with their tactile sensor for prosthetics — Robosense.

The Cannibuster has already received Ohio Third Frontier funding for further prototyping. The LaunchTown prize will allow the team to create partnerships with law enforcement departments in states where marijuana has been legalized to discern final device requirements from the end user’s perspective.

Slipping into second place

The runner-up was the other UA team which is under the mentorship of Dr. Jae-Won Choi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Ken Burns, founder of Tiny Circuits. Morteza Vatani and Benjamin Kent, Ph.D. candidates in mechanical engineering, teamed up with Hall Miles, an undergraduate in mechanical engineering, to develop “next generation” tactile sensors for prosthetics, which they are calling Robosense.  

Sensors today aren’t as adept at holding on to things, mainly because they can’t detect when something is slipping. Robosense can detect more points of contact and mimic the size and shape of the human fingertip better than the current commercially available products — and it can be done at one tenth the cost — thanks to 3D printing. These sensors perceive temperature, pressure and slip detection.  

The team has a patent pending for a conductive polymeric material that they use to protect the sensors from mayhem, like putting a hand in boiling water or smashing a thumb with a hammer. Team Robosense also has plans for industrial applications for robot “hands” found on assembly lines.

The group has already received The University of Akron’s LEAP funding, which is a $25,000 matching fund, and has applied for a $100,000 Ohio Third Frontier grant and a $50,000 I-Corps team grant.

LaunchTown is an idea competition created in 2007 by the Entrepreneurship Education Consortium. It is open to graduate-student-led teams with awards going to the best ideas submitted for a new business, product or service. The purpose is to inspire and provide students a forum to experience what it is like to become an entrepreneur. The Burton D. Morgan Foundation is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship.

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Media contact: Lisa Craig, 330-972-7429 or