Engineering students win first hackathon sponsored by Target Corporation

Team created a natural adhesive for flame-retardant sleepwear that will be further developed through a summer grant

Winning team of five students and two faculty mentors standing on the stairs in Claire T. Carney Library
Winners of the first Target Hackathon and their faculty advisors are, first row, from left, Alec DaSilva '22, Anna Church '20, Madison Zenni '20, and Ian Sullivan '22. Back row, from left, are Professor Qinguo Fan, Antonio Olivieri '20, and Associate Professor Tracie Ferreira.

Drawing on their proximity to Massachusetts’ SouthCoast, a team of engineering majors won the Children’s Sleepwear Safety & Design Hackathon by creating a natural, flame-retardant adhesive to polyester that can be used to place characters or decorations on children’s sleepwear.

The hackathon was sponsored by Target Corporation, a national retail chain, at the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis. Due to recent legislation, Target aims to remove hazardous flame-retardant chemicals from children’s sleepwear in favor of safer alternatives.

Team advisor Tracie Ferreira, associate professor of bioengineering, recently completed research on a two-year Target Foundation grant, where she explored ways to make polyester more flame-retardant using eco-friendly, natural nano-particles.

When Ferreira learned about the hackathon, which focused on the adhesives used in children’s sleepwear, she recruited UMassD student volunteers for this first-time event. She knew she had assembled two very strong engineering teams, but they were competing against teams from the well-known textiles program at North Carolina State University and the apparel design program at St. Catherine University in Minnesota.

She was more than thrilled when she received word minutes after their awards that they had placed first and second. “I am very proud,” said Ferreira. “They represented us so well and the winning team will now work on their idea with a grant this summer at UMassD.”

Team used bioengineering knowledge with biomimicry and natural marine resources

Two teams headed northwest for just 27 hours to compete. Team 1 included Anna Church ’20 (Peabody, MA), Alec DaSilva ’22 (Dartmouth, MA), Antonio Olivieri ’20 (Shrewsbury, MA), Ian Sullivan ’22 (Rehoboth, MA), and Madison Zenni ’20 (Fall River, MA). All are bioengineering majors except for Zenni, who is majoring in mechanical engineering.

The second-place team consisted of bioengineering majors Dylan Bryda ’20 (Falmouth, MA), Quinn Kennedy ’20 (Holden, MA), Jonathan Lake ’21 (Blackstone, MA), Alexis Lannigan ’21 (Swansea, MA), and Ian Smiley ’20 (Rehoboth, MA).  They proposed using a natural protein other than wool and silk for flame retardant fibers.

Church’s team focused on the printed designs, which include a highly-flammable acrylic based binder that requires a fire retardant to combat it.

“We turned to our bioengineering routes and used biomimicry as a basis, the idea of recreating naturally occurring phenomena. Being from UMassD, we automatically thought about the ocean as the source for our compound,” said Church, the Team 1 lead.


2nd place team from the Target Hackathon with five students and two faculty mentors standing on stairs in Claire T. Carney Library
A team bioengineering majors placed second in the Target Hackathon. With their team advisors are, first row, from left, Alexis Lanigan '21, Quinn Kennedy '20, and Jonathan Lake '21. Back row, from left, are Professor Qinguo Fan, Ian Smiley '20, Dylan Bryda '20, and Associate Professor Tracie Ferreira.

Preparation was key

Judges included Target designers and managers, along with representatives from Archoma, a global provider of dyes for textiles and other products.

Church was surprised to meet Carl Fortin from Archroma, who majored in mechanical engineering at Southeastern Massachusetts University with a focus in textile engineering. “I got the opportunity to talk to him a little and it turns out we both had Dr. [Yong] Kim,” she said. Kim is chancellor professor of bioengineering.

To prepare for the competition, the teams met twice to compare ideas and do research. They also spoke with their industry advisers from Target and Disney about their design ideas. Professor Qinguo Fan, bioengineering department chair, gave them a crash course on how to coat threads.

“We had no background in textiles prior to entering the contest,” Church said.

While textile engineering had not been covered in class, biomimetics is commonly used in the bioengineering department. Church’s background in organic chemistry helped.

Grant will enable further development of the winning project

On the day of the hackathon, the team had to work fast, arriving at Target headquarters at 8 a.m. and working until final presentations were due at 3:45 p.m. Learning that they had won was “surreal.”

Target awarded the team a $15,000 grant to develop the idea at UMassD. The students plan to work over the summer and hope to produce testable prototypes. The first-place team also won $2,500 while the second-place team won $1,500.

“Receiving praise from the judges was a dream,” Church said. “First and foremost, they were very impressed with our innovation as they had not heard much about biomimetics. They loved that we had not only done our research on the compound but also had looked into the logistics of creating it in mass scale.”

A win for students and their faculty

Church credits Ferreira for organizing the event and supporting the team. “Her support throughout the trip was unmatched. She went above and beyond per usual. The same goes for Dr. Fan, who took the time to give us a crash course on textile science. He really helped to guide everyone in the right direction.

“I am beyond thrilled that we were able to bring back a win to UMassD, especially for these two who did so much for us,” Church said.


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