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Lifelens malaria app wins Microsoft 'Imagine Cup' grant

Microsoft announces that Team Lifelens of the U.S., a finalist in the 2011 Imagine Cup competition, has won a $75,000 grant.

Team Lifelens was announced as an Imagine Cup finalist in 2011. Microsoft

After taking second place in the 2011 Imagine Cup finals, Team Lifelens of the U.S. is one of four teams from around the world to win a $75,000 Imagine Cup grant, Microsoft announced today at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The Lifelens project is run by students at universities across the country who have been working since November 2010 on an app that can image malaria cells for fast diagnosis right there on the phone, sans Internet.

The Lifelens app can image and count malarial cells. Microsoft

The premise is straightforward. Apply a blood sample to a slide with a dye that only malaria parasites can absorb. Using a specialized lens with 350x magnification, image that slide to get a cellular-level view of blood cells. The team's algorithm then detects which, if any, cells--and how many--are infected with the malaria parasite.

The student tech competition Imagine Cup is now in its 10th year, while the grant program is in its inaugural year. The grant package provides each team with not only the $75,000 grant but also solution provider support, software, cloud computing services, Microsoft BizSpark account benefits, and connections with the company's network of business partners, investors, and NGOs.

During the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos today, the four winning team captains (representing the U.S., Ecuador, Jordan, and Croatia) were granted a roundtable with Bill Gates on opportunities for youth.

Lifelens team member and PhD candidate Wilson To, meanwhile, was halfway around the world at UC Davis on his way to a qualifying exam. I caught up with him by phone to better understand how the Lifelens app is different from other cell phone-based malaria diagnostic tools coming to market.

"One of the biggest differences our project brings to the table is that we're coupling blood cells with analysis tools," says To, who is studying comparative pathology and imaging. "A lot of projects in development really just focus on imaging. But we can teach it to do different analyses right there on the phone."

With roughly 655,000 people succumbing to malaria in 2010 alone (9 out of 10 of those deaths occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa), Team Lifelens wanted to marry hardware (the phone, a specialized lens designed to fit behind the built-in camera, and a rugged case that will hold the lens) with software (a Silverlight framework that is Windows Phone 7.0/7.5 compatible) and create one affordable tool that does not require Internet access.

To says that Lifelens is likely a few years from development. The team envisions its use in remote clinics, where a single phone can be used to diagnose many people. The application includes GPS to geotag the location of each cellular analysis, which can then be displayed on Bing Maps.