U of A student takes required National I-Corps technology development course

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A prototype of the technology.

What started out as a required course at the U of A has become a National Science Foundation National Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) winner ($50,000) with potential for application in industry.

In the fall of 2019, Taylor Farnan signed up for clinical observations and findings of need, and then launched breakthrough technology. Clinical Observations and Findings of Need is a required course for biomedical engineering students. The aim of the course is to pair students with clinicians, based on their areas of interest, and to promote engagement with a variety of different medical settings to identify a need or problem and begin to develop a solution, thus preparing students for their higher capstone course. . Through this course, Farnan began working with Dr. Astryd A. Menendez.

Menendez is a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital of Arkansas, and in her experience with the pulmonary function lab, they had trouble getting consistent and accurate data among pediatric patients. To assess the health, capacity, and overall function of the lungs, doctors administer a spirometry lung function test. The test involves a patient blowing into a machine, called a spirometer, for six seconds starting with the lungs filled with air to the top (total lung capacity) and exhaling it to residual volume. But for many pediatric patients, who have never encountered this strange contraption, it is impossible to complete the test. Most pediatric patients can only exhale for three seconds or less, which prevents accurate assessments of lung function, leading to additional visits and tests. Also, because it is so difficult to get accurate results from these tests, it is equally difficult to physiologically assess their lung disease.

With this realization, Farnan began to wonder if she and her team could create a device that would allow patients to prepare for the test, thereby reducing additional costs and appointment time. The following spring, 2019, Farnan recruited Lina Patel, another U of A biomedical engineering student, for her technical skills in hardware, software, and 3D printing. With Farnan’s idea in mind, the team set to work.

The technology has developed rapidly during the 2020-2021 school year. The team began developing the device, creating prototypes and testing it, partnering with electrical engineering students to develop software for their “Pediatric Pulmonary Emission Device”. By this point, the device had become the team’s primary project, but with graduation fast approaching, neither Patel nor Farnan wanted to give it up. They recognized the incredible impact their device could have on testing and diagnostics, and so they persisted. Nathan Lucas, also a biomedical engineering student at the U of A, later joined the team because of his technical background and familiarity with the medical device industry.

Looking ahead, the team has been accepted into the Summer Cohort No. 1 NSF National I-Corps program and is a recipient of the Chancellor’s Marketing Fund, the two totaling $100,000 in follow-on funding investment from the initial investment of $300. With this money, the team hopes to validate its business model and develop an additional 400 prototypes, enough to allow them to complete an Institutional Review Board clinical study, bringing them one step closer to market.

Farnan is currently at the Georgia Institute of Technology in a master’s program in biomedical innovation and development. Among other things, it learns about intellectual property, protects technology, and markets devices, such as their pediatric spirometry training device. Lucas, who will graduate this spring, plans to continue his studies at the University of Kansas in the fall, participating in a similar program. He will continue to support the team through their NSF apps and work to bring their device to market. Patel plans to continue at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) with Menendez, specifically facilitating market application and ensuring clinician interest in the product, which is critical to bringing a product to market in the medical field.

The team is advised and supported by industry mentor Ryan Shelton, CEO and co-founder of PhotoniCare Inc.; Morten Jensen, Biomedical Engineering Faculty Member and Arkansas Research Alliance Fellow; and Menedez, professor of pediatric and pulmonary medicine in the Pediatric Pulmonary Section of the UAMS College of Medicine. If the results of customer discovery prove favorable under the NSF National I-Corps program, the team hopes to apply for the Chancellor’s $100,000 GAP fund, create a new start-up company, and commercialize its product in the coming years, revolutionizing pediatric and diagnostic lung testing.

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