Macalester College senior Tyler Skluzacek arrived at a coding competition in Washington D.C. last month with programming smarts and a desire to help veterans, like his father, who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
All he needed was a good idea and a team to pursue it.
In 36 hours.
By the time the HackDC competition concluded, at the end of the Sept. 25-27 weekend, Skluzacek and his team of four coders had earned a top prize for creating the best clinical app. The myBivy smartwatch app tracks symptoms of night terrors that disrupt sleep in people with PTSD.
After talking with veterans and clinicians, the team eliminated a number of “bad ideas” for PTSD solutions and honed in on a program that could predict night terrors by monitoring variations in the wearer’s pulse and movement. Feedback to the app from veterans wearing the watch, and doctors who receive data from it remotely, help it determine when night terrors come on.
The app needs to “learn in the first couple of weeks of the soldier wearing it,” said Skluzacek, 21, who is from New Prague. “So that it knows, ‘OK, this is what night terrors in this person always start out as.”
Military records show that 10 to 15 percent of veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf wars, and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, receive diagnosis of PTSD.
The disorder causes sufferers to relive trauma, even in the absence of danger, through flashbacks, insomnia, agitation and other symptoms. It can also produce night terrors marked by screaming, intense fear and flailing while sleeping.
Skluzacek said his father served in Iraq in 2006 and was noticeably different upon returning. Producing the PTSD app “was all rooted in my dad,” he said.
Skluzacek was emotional when he won the prize at the competition, which was assembled by LongView International Technology Solutions, which creates mobile apps for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies.
“I thought about telling my dad that my idea will help him sleep better someday, and that ‘someday’ is coming up soon,” he said.
The team has spent the last two weeks refining the app, and Skluzacek and his father have been wearing prototype watches to see whether they work. Companies have expressed interest and investors have tripled the start-up funds the team sought through online fundraising this week.
Skluzacek hopes to soon submit the app to the VA for clinical testing.