Selynna Sun was at the Vatican last March when Pope Francis spoke about welcoming and nurturing people with learning disabilities.
And that’s when Sun and her international team of fellow computer science students came up with the idea for an app that would help people with dyslexia.
“Dyslexia is one of the more prominent disabilities, and we wanted to build something that could disrupt and revolutionize current dyslexia treatments,” said Sun, from Mountain View.
Their app, designed to help dyslexic children read, is the first to combine mixed reality, gamification and cutting-edge scientific research into a tool that is immediately transferable, improvement-focused and fun.
Named Zelixa, the app led Sun to Seattle last week, where her team was one of 49 finalists – in a pool out 40,000 students that applied — in the Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals. The team had previously finished 6th at the U.S. Finals.
Recently included as one of Cal Poly’s Most Influential Women by the Women in Business Wire, Sun has had a significant impact on Cal Poly’s tech community. SLO Hacks, which she co-founded, brings students from all over California to Cal Poly. And their next big event – a 36-hour hackathon in February – is expected to draw 500 students.
Selynna Sun speaks during the opening ceremony of Bitcamp, a 1,200-student hackathon at the University of Maryland.
While the word “hacking” conjures images of cybercriminals, those who attend hackathons form teams around a problem or idea and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch. Those solutions can take the form of a website, mobile app or a robot.
“I’ve been attending hackathons since my sophomore year of high school and organizing them since my senior year,” Sun said.
When she began at Cal Poly, however, there was no hackathon – and no one was willing to travel elsewhere to get to any. So she helped create SLO Hacks.
“I hoped that by bringing a large hackathon to Cal Poly, people at SLO could experience what the power of a real hacker community is like and that I’d be able to find students willing to travel to other parts of the U.S. and world to attend these events,” she said.
It was that zest for benevolent hacking that led Sun and her team to Italy, where the Vatican hosted a 36-hour hackathon called VHacks. VHacks was not a religious event, though the Catholic Church did note three problems it believes need solutions: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue and assistance for migrants and refugees.
“I’m glad the Vatican is starting to realize the power of students and technology, and since they focus on a lot of social good missions, inviting students to build game-changing ideas and products is a smart move,” Sun said.
And it was there that Zelixa came about.
Selynna Sun juggling Selynna Sun participates in a juggling challenge at FireCode Hack, a hackathon hosted by Workday and her club, SLO Hacks.
While at the Vatican, Sun and her team – one student from Harvard, others from Germany, London and Manchester – brainstormed their idea in between visits to landmarks and eateries (“Couldn’t eat American pizza the same after that.”)
Optimized for the Hololens, a holographic computer and head-mounted display, Zelixa (named for how people with dyslexia might view the word “dyslexia”) combines three different therapies: phonological, morphological and visual. Microsoft technologies will help customize therapies.
“Dyslexia therapies are monopolized by a few big players in the industry, which enables inflated pricing and a lack of urgency to modernize,” Sun said. “Zelixa is disrupting all of that – we’re bringing our approach to augmented reality, making it more accessible, more cheap and more modernized.”
After college, Sun hopes to start out as a software engineer before leading a startup and eventually becoming an executive at a well-performing company. That startup could involve Zelixa, which she hopes to pilot at elementary schools before releasing to the public.
“I really hope it will eventually change people’s lives,” she said.