Mason/Amazon hackathon is a win for Mason students

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three men hold up a cardboard check
Team Nimbus—Pranav Reddippali, Srivatsa Krishnamurthy, Pranay Yella—took second place at the Mason/Amazon Bring Down Counterfeiting Public Policy Hackathon. Photo by Blue Clarity

Nervousness, shock, disbelief, exhaustion. Those were among the emotions George Mason University freshmen Pranay Yella and Pranav Reddippali said they experienced at the 2022 Bring Down Counterfeiting Public Policy Hackathon.

In the end, though, it was worth it—$15,000 to be exact.

That is how much Team Nimbus—which included Yella, an information technology major; Reddippali, a computer science major; and their friend from the University of Virginia, Srivatsa Krishnamurthy—were awarded as the event’s second-place finisher.

Their proposal: Develop a Google Chrome extension that can prevent the consumption of counterfeit medicine by focusing on exposing counterfeit pharmacies.

Louise Shelley at the podium
Louise Shelley, founder and director of Mason's TraCCC. Photo by John Boal Photography

Team Hypercube earned the $20,000 first prize for its concept of a national counterfeiting index through an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered blockchain that would allow federal, state and local law enforcement to share information, and consumers to verify the authenticity of a product through their phones.

“Opportunities like this are definitely something to be taken seriously,” Yella said. “An idea is a free thing, but once you implement it, it can revolutionize the world.”

The hackathon, co-hosted by Mason’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and Amazon, was held Nov. 5 at the Homeland Security Investigations Lab in Arlington, Virginia.

TraaCCC is located at Mason Square (formerly Arlington Campus), where the 345,000-square -oot Fuse building is under construction, scheduled to open in 2025. Fuse will serve as a technological hub in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, connecting students, faculty, industry, and government. 

Saturday's hackathon, administered by Blue Clarity, challenged teams from U.S. and international academic institutions, companies, and other affiliations to develop innovative ideas to improve public–private collaborations against the industry-wide global challenge of counterfeiting. More than 280 individuals registered for the hackathon. More than 30 teams submitted proposals by the deadline, 11 of which made the finals.

An panel of judges scored the submissions based on potential impact, scalability, creativity and design.

In developing the submissions, participants had access to experts and mentors from Amazon, law enforcement, tech and retail industries, academia, and government.

From Mason, those included the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center (CINA), the College of Science, the School of Computing, and the Antonin Scalia Law School.

“Only effective public–private collaboration and a relentless pursuit of solutions can solve this problem,” Mason President Gregory Washington said. “This important event is a step in that direction because this hackathon involves policy. We’re not just pursuing greater understanding of counterfeiting, we’re trying to improve the response to the problem. We appreciate Amazon’s commitment to work with Mason to find innovative solutions and to provide opportunities for Mason students to take part in these challenging hands-on experiences.”

Added Kebharu Smith, director of Amazon’s Counterfeit Crimes Unit: “We’re excited to be, as Amazon, part of this hackathon with Mason and TraCCC and the other partners that participated in this first hackathon, to really think about ways that we can fight counterfeiters and the scourge of counterfeiting. This partnership is key to us moving forward and going after counterfeiters and beating them at this threat.”

man in front of a video camera
Kebharu Smith, director of Amazon’s Counterfeit Crimes Unit, spoke with the media following the hackathon. Photo by Blue Clarity

Which brings us back to Yella and Reddippali, the Mason students who finished second in the competition with their friend from UVA.

Asked why they decided to focus on counterfeit medicine and pharmacies, Reddippali said, “Because we felt it had the most impact on people with lives at stake. With other counterfeit goods, it is the stealing of intellectual property. But we felt this was more urgent.”

Yella, Reddippali, and Krishnamurthy, all from Ashburn, Virginia, met in high school. Reddippali said Yella came up with the idea of the Chrome extension, but they all collaborated on the details that include checking the legitimacy of online pharmacies and creating a forum where users can provide feedback that can be accessed by local, state and federal authorities.

“They were so thoughtful in thinking about counterfeiting as a health and safety issue,” said Louise Shelley, TraCCC’s founder and director. “And they were so incredibly clever in thinking about solutions.”

They are also thinking about the future of their project.

“We’re definitely going to go on with this project in a more serious way,” Yella said. “We feel this product can revolutionize the medicine industry. We definitely want to use our funds to make it successful in the future.”

In the moment, though, “They were so excited,” Shelley said, “they were shaking.”

Other awards:

Mason’s Criminal Investigations Network and Analysis Center sponsored a special $10,000 prize to fund follow-up research by A-CAPP Team #1, which proposed producing a central database to help law enforcement and private businesses track individuals and factories that manufacture or sell counterfeit items.

The $5,000 student prize went to The Spartan Solution, which demonstrated a cipher-based solution to combat counterfeit listings on e-commerce sites before the listings reach consumers.

The crowdsource prize of $2,000 went to Team G.I.N., which detailed creation of a network, accessible by a QR code, that will allow everyone the ability to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit goods.