From battles to books

Former U.S. Air Force gunner wins more than first place in mHealth Challenge

Mike Butler created a winning app as part of the mHealth Challenge during IST Startup Week, a weeklong series of events at University Park campus that brings together teams of students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology and the Department of Biobehavioral Health. Credit: Tom Flach All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Mike Butler appears to be like any other Penn State student at first glance. But get to know him, and you will learn that two years ago he was flying over Afghanistan as a gunner on an AC-130, a heavily armed ground attack aircraft.

“I remember receiving my acceptance letter to Penn State,” said Butler. “I was in a computer lab inside a plywood building while in Afghanistan.”

As a single 24-year-old at the time, starting a new chapter in his life as a college student was exciting to him. He hung up his uniform and turned to books.

“The military period of my life is over, but I still want to make an impact,” Butler said. “Which is why I plan to make a difference at Penn State by being innovative and getting involved.”

For Butler, that innovation and impact began with the mHealth Challenge.

Butler participated in the mHealth Challenge during IST Startup Week, a weeklong series of events at University Park campus that brings together teams of students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH). As part of the challenge, each team is asked to create a mock-up of a mobile health application (app) that addresses a social health need of a target audience.

“BBH students are the health experts, while IST students are the technology experts,” said Lee Erickson, an IST lecturer and undergraduate studies entrepreneurship academic program coordinator who created the event with Meg Small, assistant director of the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “To create a mobile app for a specific health need, both BBH and IST students must be able to translate their expertise — and that is what makes the mHealth Challenge so challenging.”

BBH students identify a societal health need, write a brief on the problem, define the target audience and determine the behavior to be changed. They then consult with IST students who create a mock-up of an app. Each cross-college team then presents their idea to a panel of judges.

As an IST student concentrating on integration and application, Butler worked on the technological aspect of the project. He and his team came up with a mobile app called Outpost.

“The app links outdoor enthusiasts together,” Butler said. “It allows you to geo-locate where and when you are doing your outdoor activities — kind of like a [Facebook] status. That way, like-minded people can join you.”

The team had only two weeks to create Outpost, but working with others on a deadline was familiar to Butler. “My time in the military didn’t just teach me how to work in teams,” he said, “it taught me how to do so effectively.”

He said he connected with the BBH students on his team, who were interested in the work he was doing and followed every technological step he took.

“The BBH students on my team were very curious and always wanted to contribute,” said Butler.

Professor JoAnn Foley-DeFiore involves her BBH students in the mHealth Challenge. “My students are always astonished by how much IST students know about technology and how much they are able to do on a computer.”

Faculty members provide a suggested schedule and mentor teams during the two weeks to help them shape their ideas and pitches. Butler’s team presented their idea to a panel of two judges, Todd Erdley, president and CEO of Videon, and John Sun Kim, founding CEO of DoctorBase and Five9.

By the end of the judging, Outpost had taken first place in the mHealth Challenge. But Butler got more than just bragging rights.

“A few days after the event, John Kim spoke to mHealth Challenge participants about ways to effectively pitch business ideas to investors,” said Butler. “I think what intrigued me the most was his straightforwardness and overall energy. After listening to him speak, I approached him and asked if I could pick his brain. He accepted.”

During their three-hour conversation, Butler told Kim about his military experience, including his four deployments to Afghanistan and his 157 combat missions. They also chatted about Kim’s company, and by the end of the conversation, Kim was giving Butler advice about what classes to schedule in upcoming semesters and offering him a job after he graduates. He also invited Butler to San Francisco so he can introduce him to his colleagues. Butler accepted Kim’s invitation to San Francisco and plans to visit him this summer.

“Being in the military taught me how to pull from every available resource and use it to my advantage,” said Butler.

In this case, that advantage was his Penn State education — an asset that took him from a plywood computer lab in Afghanistan to a high-rise building in San Francisco.

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Last Updated May 13, 2015