Two Caltech grad students, Alex Pai and Betty Wong, found inspiration in a dating spat to spin off a new product—and they’re taking their love for innovation to new heights.

Love can strike at the most unusual times—just like the inspiration to invent something new. Last year, electrical engineer Alex Pai (PhD ’15), then a graduate student, was pining for fellow graduate student Betty Wong. Although the two had both grown up in Northern California and attended UC Berkeley, they had met for the first time at Caltech. Pai spent months trying to woo the biochemist, even employing his engineering skills to handcraft a tech-savvy necklace for Wong. In the end, however, it was a simple home-cooked Valentine’s Day steak dinner that won her over.

But early in the relationship, Wong started to notice a persistent problem when she spent time with her boyfriend. If she got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, she’d inevitably run the risk of falling into the toilet because the seat was up.

Then one night she got up and noticed a glow coming from the commode. Pai had painted the inside of the toilet lid with glow-in-the-dark paint so she’d know it was safe to go.

“It was such a simple thing,” says Wong. “I don’t have to change my habits and he doesn’t have to change his habits.” On that night, Wong said her admiration for Pai’s creativity grew, and an idea took hold: they should share this product with the wider world.

PG_instructionsFrom that toilet seat, the duo created Potty Glo, photoluminescent adhesives that give off light and let people know when the toilet seat is down. The stickers, made with strontium aluminate, glow for up to 12 hours after receiving 30 minutes of artificial or natural light. After doing some research, Wong and Pai say they chose strontium aluminate because it’s a newer photoluminescent chemical that can give off light 10 times longer than the traditional zinc sulfide used for glow-in-the-dark stickers.

There are potential health benefits from using Potty Glo rather than, say, a nightlight, the pair says. The stickers shine a pale green light, which is not as disruptive to sleep cycles as blue light—the kind that comes from smartphones, television screens, and most nightlights. Sleep disruption can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, an effect that has been linked to diabetes, obesity, and depression, among other health problems.

The couple went through five iterations of the product, tweaking and perfecting the design before putting it out on Kickstarter. The campaign raised more than $3,000—enough to turn their little idea into a real product. Wong drew the designs for 10 different types of stickers, from a chubby penguin to an anglerfish, after getting requests from parents to make kid-friendly designs.

One might think that two graduate students, already swamped with research work, would struggle to find time to be entrepreneurs. But Wong and Pai jumped into the work of business with both feet. They feel the experience has brought them closer together than most couples in the first year of dating—and probably closer than most business partners.

“You can’t always get the emotional support from a business partner,” says Wong. “When I would feel down about the challenges, he would be there to pick me back up.”

Between Potty Glo and their graduate studies, they have little time for doing anything else, so the business became a way of spending quality time together.

“This is our Netflix,” says Pai. “This is what we do for fun, at midnight, when the research is done for the day.”

Inspired by their first successful collaboration, the duo was up for more inventing when they found out about NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge. The two-day hackathon in April 2015 involved nearly 1,000 teams of technologists, scientists, entrepreneurs, developers, and students collaborating to design innovative solutions for global needs, from mapping clean water on Earth to aggregating data about asteroids. Wong and Pai assembled a team of engineers and designers from Caltech and other institutions to tackle the issue of growing food in space during a two-week project period that culminated in the hackathon.

The team came up with the concept of AstroGro, a 3D-printed pod integrated with artificial intelligence to grow a renewable plant food supply for a future mission to Mars or beyond. They developed smartphone software and an interface to simplify growth conditions by determining the hydration and lighting requirements of a specific plant and then adjusting accordingly, using LED lights to provide energy for the plants to grow. The lighting system detects ambient lighting and supplements the light as necessary, and light cycles are optimized depending on the plant variety and age.

Though the two admit that they are just starting to scratch the surface of plant biology in space, the project was a regional first place and international finalist for the Galactic Impact award at the end of the competition, and, as an added bonus, Ultimaker, a 3D-printing company, and Advanced Circuits, a manufacturer of printed circuit boards, decided to sponsor Wong and Pai.

“We are now working with Ultimaker on an education initiative to use AstroGro as a learning tool in schools—a high-tech portable garden to promote STEM education and enhance children’s food literacy,” Wong says.

Still, their days revolve around the lab. When they aren’t putting their minds together for innovative product development, they are both involved in different areas of interdisciplinary brain research. Pai graduated with his doctorate in June 2015, but is sticking around as a postdoctoral fellow in the Caltech High-speed Integrated Circuits (CHIC) lab of Ali Hajimiri, the Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering. There Pai is working on therapeutic applications for treating gliomas—fast-moving brain cancers—using a person’s own immune system.

In order to guide immune cells capable of destroying tumors to their intended target, Pai and his colleagues have devised a system in which different types of immune cells are loaded with iron oxide nanoparticles, and then magnets are used to direct them within the brain. As the tumor changes or proliferates, the application can retain immune cells at specific sites and stimulate their activation.

While gliomas make up 80 percent of malignant brain tumors, traditional ways of fighting this type of cancer—surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy—don’t always work well and come with their own set of complications, says Pai. “By utilizing the patient’s own immune cells, we hope to minimize the harmful side effects of treatment,” he explains.

In a recent animal study, the process eradicated tumor cells in 60 percent of mice, and the researchers were able to show that the immune system retained a memory of the cancer cells, so it could attack them again if the cancer came back. Pai says that the eventual goal is to develop a helmet with a dynamically programmable magnetic field to guide immune cells tailored to an individual’s cancer-killing needs.

Wong, who has two more years to go in her biochemistry and molecular biophysics doctoral program, is examining the brain at a molecular level in the lab of Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry. She is studying a type of neuroproteins called nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that are believed to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as in addiction.

Her research uses fluorescent microscopy—which involves a special microscope that illuminates fluorescent tags on the neuroproteins to image and detail how the structures of the molecules relate to their functions. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are key proteins that signal for muscular contractions upon a chemical stimulus.

That same pathway is involved in memory and learning in addition to control of movement—so when the pathway is compromised, i.e., neurons expressing these proteins become degraded, someone may have impairment of cognitive and motor functions, as in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The same protein binds the drug nicotine to mediate nicotine reward, dependence, and addiction—making it a useful target for treating both illnesses and drug addiction.

The idea is that understanding the structure better will lead to improved drug treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and addiction. “If we can better understand the molecular structure of these proteins, we can develop better candidate drugs to target them and treat related neurodegenerative diseases,” says Wong.

Wong and Pai say their experiences in research have helped them think on their toes in innovation. “Research is a series of debuggings on a daily basis,” says Pai. “The faster you get over those bugs, the faster you’ll make progress, and being a good researcher requires mastering new skills all the time.”

For example, Wong had to learn fluorescent microscopy on the fly at Caltech. At the same time, she also picked up skills in design and illustration for Potty Glo, which the couple continues to push forward. The product now has a full-fledged online store, with orders coming in from around the globe, and Wong and Pai have some ideas for new markets. For example, they have received inquiries about Potty Glo in nursing homes, where residents need a safe way to find the toilet in the dark. And this summer, they partnered with the outdoor music and arts festival Burning Man and a contractor to conduct a trial run of Potty Glo for portable toilets at the event. Lighting fixtures can’t be added because portable toilets are cleaned with a high-powered hose, so Potty Glo could be a cheap and easy solution for adding a warm glow, while potentially improving people’s aim and therefore the cleanliness of the outdoor facilities as well.

For now, the pair enjoy completing whatever side projects they can, including developing their STEM initiative with AstroGlo, while maintaining research as their first priority. In the future, they hope to use their experiences as a springboard for whatever venture they pursue, be it brain-related research or more.

“We hope to save more than just butts by doing work that could save lives and projects that improve education and health,” Wong says.

Written by Katharine Gammon


Header photo by Mario de Lopez Photography