Games for Good: Student Turns Tragedy to Innovation

Tech expert and budding entrepreneur Matt Giovanniello, CSOM ’18, is always searching for new ways to innovate. But his biggest project, which he started at only 12 years old, is one that he never intended to embark on.

When he was in sixth grade, Giovanniello’s grandmother suffered a stroke during open-heart surgery.

Despite being relatively healthy beforehand, she woke up from the surgery having lost her short- and long-term memory, ability to speak, and movement in the right side of her body.

“[It] was like crazy for me to fathom that this could happen to somebody at a moment’s notice,” he said.

To no avail, doctors and therapists tried to rehabilitate Giovanniello’s grandmother with flashcards with basic pictures—stick figures of boys and girls, clip art images of houses—in order to teach her the fundamentals she had lost.

But, pushing the health professionals away with her one good arm, she made clear that she wanted nothing to do with the therapy. Seeing his grandmother was not only not interested, but also not progressing, Giovanniello knew that something had to be done. So harnessing his seventh grade Powerpoint skills, he threw together a “game” of questions, images, and music that were relevant specifically to his grandmother.

“It would be like a big family photo, and I would point to a specific person and say, ‘Who’s this?’” he said. “This [taught her] not only a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl,’ but that this is your son or this is your grandson … and she really identified with that. She loved it.”

Over the following years, Giovanniello would go on to create several of these games, and eventually, although not exclusively from the program, his grandmother became able to speak in elementary sentences.

“We were able to have a conversation, she was able to kind of tell us how she was feeling, which, when she first stroked, none of that was possible,” he said. “She was on a tube, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t breathe on her own. So to see her a year or so later progressing in the way that she did, it was enough that was worth celebrating. It was like a little milestone for her.”

A few years later, Giovanniello brought up the work he was doing with a family friend of his—Chris—who told him he was onto something big.

“Totally not my vision to start building a product when I was 12 years old, but it ended up happening that way,” Giovanniello said.

So Giovanniello and Chris began working on an application that incorporates patients’ personalized data into computerized therapy sessions—in essence, a more comprehensive version of Giovanniello’s Powerpoint games—that would be able to help patients suffering from not only strokes, but also PTSD, dementia, or traumatic brain injuries. After determining the severity of the patient’s brain injury through a series of tests, the program incorporates data that has been input by doctors and the patient’s care team—their family members, friends, and so on—to create a therapy program particular to that patient.When Giovanniello was in high school, he and Chris began meeting with an attorney in order to start trying to obtain a patent for their idea.

“The first day we met him, he told us that our chances of being awarded a patent for this were 50 percent at most, and it would cost in excess of $60,000,” Giovanniello said. “And we kind of just looked at each other, we were like, ‘Holy crap, what did we get ourselves into?’ And then the next thing was like, ‘Okay let’s do it.’”

The two were able to pull together the funds for the ambitious effort, and after six years of experiencing constant rejection from the patent office and subsequently refining the definition of their product, Giovanniello woke up one morning his sophomore year at Boston College with the long-awaited email in his inbox containing the notice of allowance for the patent.

“I was ecstatic—I couldn’t even believe that that was happening,” he said. “We received all of these documents in the mail, and now Chris and I hold a patent for our invention, which is really remarkable.”

Since then, Giovanniello and Chris have been working on their business model, and they are currently in the process of hiring a full-time developer to help bring their project to life. The pair has also entered their business idea in the Shea Venture Competition at BC, where they ended up as finalists.

“We entered that just kind of as outsiders. I wasn’t involved in Shea Center beforehand, and Chris doesn’t even go here—he’s 10 years older than I am,” Giovanniello said. “We ended up being finalists … and that was again like kind of out of nowhere, not really expected.”

Although he is not certain what the exact time frame will be, he is optimistic that within the next couple of months the team will have a beta version of the program—now named Frenalytics—which they will be able to continue refining, or possibly try out on real patients.

He hopes that by the end of 2018, they will be in the works of partnering with hospitals.

“If I’m able to improve the life of just one other patient out there, in the way that I did with my grandmother, I think that’d be mission accomplished, in a sense,” Giovanniello said. “I think the selfless act that my grandmother gave to me, and in essence to the world, is something that I shouldn’t take for granted. As unfortunate as it was for this to happen to her, it opened all these doors to providing new opportunities for patients.

“She was at the extreme end of her stroke, but there are patients who don’t suffer as significantly, but they’re still impaired. And if we could reach patients across the spectrum at all and improve their lives, I think that would be something really incredible.”

Giovanniello’s innovative endeavors haven’t just been limited to Frenalytics, however: After the venture competition, Giovanniello became more and more involved with the Shea Center and its TechTrek program. Just last semester, while taking Intro to Swift with professor John Gallaugher, Giovanniello was able to create an app that helps alleviate an all-too-familiar frustration for BC students.

“I didn’t know how to develop apps before this at all,” he said. “I’m like not a developer, not a programmer, like, that’s not my space.”

Nevertheless, by the end of the course, Giovanniello had developed Packtrack: an app that lets students track the status of their packages that are being sent to the mailroom in real time—from the moment they are shipped to when they are ready to be picked up.

“Originally I did it out of my own necessity, because it was frustrating for me to figure out where packages were before that ‘ready for pickup’ email came out, and I learned that there was a lot going on in the background in speaking with mail services and my research of shipping and tracking numbers—there’s a lot that people don’t understand,” he said. “I created this app for me to get a better understanding and to just kind of make it a one-stop shop to figure out where your stuff is.”

Not only did Packtrack win “Most Useful for BC Students” at last semester’s Student App Showcase, but it also became the first app from Gallaugher’s Swift class to be published to the App Store—now it is available for free for anyone to download.

“I think [he] is a wonderful example of the trajectory we hope our students can achieve,” Gallaugher said of Giovanniello, who now serves as a TA for the Intro to Swift class.  

“He’s got all of the characteristics for an innovator to be able to achieve their vision,” he said. “The fact that he’s working on a product and he’s now got the skills to be able to bring this to the next level … embodies so much of what we want to strive for with our students here: to show them that they can find a place where their technical skill and their passion for helping others can come together and maybe even launch a business, or at least a product.”

Giovanniello has always been interested in technology and entrepreneurship, but didn’t always expect to follow such a path.

“Both of my parents are in the medical field—hence, my interest in health care—but ever since I was a little kid I always thought I would be a doctor,” Giovanniello said. “I dressed up as a pediatrician for Halloween three years in a row when I was younger … And then, when I was in fourth grade, I don’t know what exactly inspired me, but I went up to my parents and I was like, ‘Hey, is it okay if I don’t be a doctor when I grow up?’

“And they were like, ‘Of course, follow your heart—whatever you think you’re interested in, we will support you all the way.’ … I was interested in computers—even before I could speak … but that real passion kind of clicked when I had that conversation and they said yes.”

In sixth grade, Giovanniello created his first website, an online gaming site that consisted of all of the computer games typically blocked on his middle school’s network—that was unable to be blocked by his school. Soon hundreds of thousands of people from around the world began using the site as well.

“Free Addicting Games Online by Matt G—that’s what I named it,” he said with a laugh. “Not very original.”

Giovanniello continued his online endeavors in high school as well, where he founded what he referred to as a “pseudo-consulting company” for the tech needs of people in his community, to help them with fix their computer problems or expand their online presence for business purposes. His senior year, he and three of his friends started a free anonymous student-to-student tutoring website for his high school.

“Nothing like for money or anything—it was just an activity that we did,” he said. “Like the whole spirit of just creating this thing that didn’t exist before is something that I find really interesting and exciting.”

While it may seem obvious that Giovanniello was destined for a life of involvement in entrepreneurship and innovation upon his arrival to BC, Giovanniello admits that he couldn’t have anticipated the way things have turned out for him.

“If I had to think back to freshman year in terms of where I am now, I don’t think my freshman year self would have seen me where I am senior year,” he said. “If I had to like speak to my freshman year self… I would say reach out and remain confident and really run with the ideas that you have, because I think they have the potential to change not only people’s lives, but their perception and your perception of how things go.”

Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor 

May 2, 2018