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The cool potential of a Eureka moment

Azim Sonawalla, a graduate student in Lehigh’s technical entrepreneurship program, began volunteering for his local rescue squad in New Jersey when he was in high school.

Immersed in deafening crackling sounds and nearly impenetrable smoke, firefighters in burning buildings rely on communication for safety and teamwork. But the protective masks they wear muffle their voices, making it hard to understand each other.

To solve the problem, Azim Sonawalla ‘12 has invented the Cool Talk Communicator, a universally compatible device that attaches to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks and allows firefighters to talk more clearly to each other by radio.

The creation draws on Sonawalla’s six years of experience as an emergency medical technician. The device and the company he founded, Second Shift Innovations, won the Joan and John Thalheimer ‘55 Grand Prize in Lehigh’s 2012-13 EUREKA! Ventures Competition Series for student entrepreneurs, which is sponsored by the university’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

A dozen other prizes were awarded, including a first place for graduate student Jake Huber ’09 and teammate Greg Horn ’07 for a college fund-raising platform that leverages social networks to increase young alumni participation.

A lifelong first responder

Sonawalla, who holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering, began volunteering in high school for his local rescue squad in Edison, N.J. He became a certified EMT and ambulance crew commander and later, at Lehigh, a lieutenant and a CPR instructor.

Last year, Sonawalla enrolled in Lehigh’s technical entrepreneurship master’s program, which teaches students to design a product and launch a company. The Cool Talk Communicator, he says, seemed an ideal way “to create solutions that my friends and I could actually use in the field.” He has received kudos for the device from firefighters.

Working as an EMT and starting a business require similar skills, he says. “You’ve got to be able to make decisions and work under severe amounts of pressure. People look to you for guidance. You never know what you’re getting into, but the ability to adapt and think on your feet is ultimately what guides your success.”

The EUREKA! award includes $5,000 in cash and $12,500 in in-kind prizes, including office space at Ben Franklin TechVentures business incubator on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus. Earlier this year, Sonawalla’s device also won the “Best Idea Stage” award at the Ismaili Professionals Network LaunchPad, a venture pitch competition in California’s Silicon Valley.

Sonawalla also leads two interdisciplinary teams of undergraduates working on projects in Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program.

“Lehigh has taught me how to learn, work hard and create solutions,” he says. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to do what I want to do. Weeks fly by without my noticing because I’m so busy working on a project that I want to work on. If the rest of my career is like this, I’m in for many happy years.”

Story by Amy White

Posted on Friday, April 26, 2013

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