New round of Amazon Catalyst Grants awarded to WSU innovators and entrepreneurs

Two students in front of a white board with stickers on it.
Launched in 2018, the collaborative program between Amazon and WSU funds projects with potential global impact. Photo courtesy of Teresa Walker, Purdue School of Engineering Education.

PULLMAN, Wash., – The Amazon Catalyst Program at Washington State University has awarded nearly $20,000 in grants to two teams comprised of research faculty and students from varied university disciplines and locations.

Team Cross-Cultural Optics and team Virtual Reality 360 received grants for their innovative solutions to specific problems posed by Amazon. Launched in 2018, the collaborative program between Amazon and WSU funds projects with potential global impact. This year, applicants were asked to consider the themes of urban transportation and computational social science and submit innovative ideas that have the possibility for big change in these areas.

Closeup of Julie Kmec
Julie Kmec

Team Cross-Cultural Optics, led by Julie Kmec, professor of sociology, was awarded a grant to develop a virtual reality environment that enables female engineers based in the U.S. to explore engineering spaces elsewhere in the world that have higher levels of engineering participation by women. In the U.S., women hold 24% of engineering degrees but represent only 18% of the engineering labor force. Cross-cultural Optics aims to create a visual world and set of narratives that will provide users an opportunity to experience the stories of other engineers in countries across the globe where women represent a higher percentage of the engineering student body and workforce; enabling them to share testimonies, seek advice, learn from others’ experiences, and problem solve.

Closeup of Don McMahon
Don McMahon

Team Virtual Reality 360, led by Don McMahon, assistant professor of special education technology, was awarded a grant to continue their work developing a virtual reality app that implements video modeling, social-skills instruction, and interactive choices to help students with autism develop and hone their social skills. The 360-degree VR modeling app will provide a way to implement immersive, first-person video experiences that support students who could benefit from ‘failure free’ practice of social skills.

“Our grant recipients this year had some very promising ideas in the theme of computational social science,” said H. B. Siegel, who oversees the Catalyst collaborative at Amazon. “We were pleased with the applicants’ response to both themes. Just like our applicants, at Amazon, we are always innovating, and we want to offer the best program for our university innovators and entrepreneurs. We are excited for the third round coming in the next academic year, where the WSU team will help select the themes based on the research goals of their university.”

This year’s winners represent WSU’s Department of Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences; School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture; and the College of Education. The WSU teams are collaborating with researchers and students from the University of Texas at San Antonio; Purdue University; and the Virtual Technology and Design VR Lab at University of Idaho. They will join the Amazon Catalyst Fellows, a community of previous winners, who share access to Catalyst Program’s resources and mentorship.

WSU’s goal, throughout each iteration of the Amazon Catalyst program, is to encourage innovative solutions across a variety of academic units. With an emphasis on multi-disciplinary and cross-functional collaboration, WSU encourages students, faculty and staff to participate in the program.

“Going forward, we will launch our third application cycle of the program this fall,” said Brian Kraft, assistant vice president, Innovation and Research Engagement Office. “The WSU team will work with Amazon to select three new themes for this next round that resonate with the research being done at WSU.”

“We look forward to another successful response from our students and faculty who can bring forward great ideas with the potential for big change and bigger impact,” said Marie Mayes, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

Visit the Amazon Catalyst website to learn more about grant recipients and to keep up on project updates.

Media Contacts:

  • Meagan Garrett, consultant, Brand Venture Consulting, 509-475-0028,
  • Marie Mayes, director, Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, WSU Carson College of Business, 509-335-5628,
  • Brian Kraft, assistant vice president, Innovation and Research Engagement Office, WSU Office of Research, 509-335-3959,

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