FastForward U teams innovate with new and old technologies

By TRISHA PARAYIL | November 7, 2019

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This feature is a continuation of “FastForward U supports nascent student ventures “ on A1.

Bioswift 

In a city like Baltimore where the prevalence of childhood asthma is more than twice the national average, Bioswift’s Flowmate aims to rectify a design shortcoming in dry powder inhalers. 

Dry powder inhalers are the latest standard in asthma treatment. It reduces the need for patients to press a button and inhale at the same time. However, it was designed with adults — who have larger lung capacities and overall stronger lungs than children — in mind. This means that child patients are often not receiving their full dosage. 

In an attempt to solve this, Bioswift created Flowmate as an attachment for dry powder inhalers for children. 

The Bioswift team is led by senior Maxwell Xu and includes seniors Varun Kedia and Isaree Pitaktong as well as sophomores Yunong Bai and Lily Zhu. 

Flowmate works by taking into account a child’s inspiratory flow rate and augmenting that rate to the threshold that dry powder inhalers have. 

“We’ve seen over and over again that this problem with dry powder inhalers is one that a lot of children have,” Zhu said. 

Currently the team is going through iterations of the product. They plan to complete validation and verification testing by the end of the semester. 

“We want to verify that it is not only a product that increases flow rate and [medicinal] depositions but also that it’s something that people can actually use,” Kedia said. “We want to make sure that it’s child-friendly and helps in a clinical setting.”

FastForward U (FFU) has helped the team with business development like market analysis, researching alternative markets in order to scale their product and branding to develop the company. 

For Xu, one of the primary motivators to address a seemingly niche issue is not only its implications for medical treatment but also to raise awareness about the issue. According to him, the parents of many pediatric patients are unaware that dry powder inhalers do not administer the full dose in children. 

“We only know about this because expert pediatric pulmonologists presented us this issue to solve,” he said. “We want to help children know that they should not be using dry powder inhalers, or if they are, they should be using it properly.”

Cellular Analysis Technologies 

Unlike other Spark recipients which target problems in medical treatment, the focus of Cellular Analysis Technologies is an inefficiency in research lab technique. 

The team is developing a computer algorithm to automate the process of counting cells in a cell culture. The current, most widely used method involves looking at a culture through a microscope and clicking a device every time a cell is seen. 

When junior Christian Gonzalez encountered this inefficient process in his lab, he contacted junior Robert Waxman. Soon they created a nascent version of what is now Cellular Analysis Technologies. Sophomores Daniel Sun and Jacob Feitelberg along with junior Marc Bordui are also a part of the team. 

“We understand what it’s like to count by hand and how monotonous and arduous it is,” Feitelberg said. “I don’t see why automation was not done beforehand.”

The team is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to simplify the process. 

With early support from The Hatchery as well as current mentorship and funding through FFU, the team said that they found creative freedom which they would not have otherwise had in a corporate or lab setting. 

Waxman also noted that the team has received significant funding from various other programs that Hopkins offers. 

“Although Hopkins did not have enough resources a few years ago, they have developed it, and I think that they are on a good upward trend in order to further develop the resources to support student start-ups,” he observed. 

Currently the team’s technology is optimized for breast cancer cells. They plan to have a minimum viable product by the end of the semester and eventually expand the technology to suit other cell morphologies by the end of the spring semester. 

“We hope to have a large-scale impact on cancer treatment,” Waxman said. “Our aim is to help increase the efficiency and accuracy of output for research labs. We hope that by increasing accuracy and speed we can help patients indirectly with their outcomes.”

PediaCORE 

The students behind PediaCORE have created a prototype to gamify physical therapy sessions for children with cerebral palsy. 

The team includes sophomores Joshua Park, Sundari Parise and Maggie Li, and seniors Akaash Sanyal, Nicholas Maritato, Tatiana Gelaf Romer and Teya Bergamaschi. The team is led by senior Samiksha Ramesh.

Ramesh explained that since children do not understand why physical therapy is a critical step in the healing process, they often do not have the motivation to complete the required repetitive motions. 

In an effort to make physical therapy sessions more engaging for the patients, the team has created a game-like program which mimics physical therapy.

“We are trying to take aspects of virtual reality that make it beneficial in patient settings and are safe for children to use,” Maritato said. 

Amy Bastian, the chief science officer at Kennedy Krieger Institute, initially approached them with the project. Since then, the team spent the past summer refining their prototype. In addition to working in the Bastian lab, Bergamaschi described how they had to complete various administrative tasks like securing approval from the Institutional Review Board to conduct trials in the Hopkins Hospital.

“We spent this summer trying to get over all those hurdles except the business aspect of it,” Bergamaschi said. “That is where FFU came in and offered us the mentorship to make it a marketable idea.”

Weekly workshops touch on the various factors involved in transforming an idea into a company. They also attend one-on-one meetings every week with a staff member of the accelerator program who assists them to chart out and meet their business goals. This support has helped them to define their market and determine how to promote their product to potential consumers.

Multiple studies have found that cerebral palsy disproportionately affects low-income people. So a challenge for the team was finding a compromise between profitability and accessibility to those who need it the most. 

At first, in order to make it inexpensive, the team created an overly simple program. But after feedback and multiple iterations, they are closer to striking a balance. 

“Yes, we want to help people, and yes, we want to make it affordable, but at the same time we want to create meaningful technologies that people otherwise would not have access to,” Ramesh said.

Switchscopes

Similarly working on another innovation in the medical field, Waqas Haque and his business partners Ubaid Murad and Mohammad Badar are attempting to revive the art of the physical exam. Their product, Switchscopes, is a mobile medical imaging device which will serve as a supplement to a routine exam. 

Haque, a graduate student in the School of Public Health, and Murad and Badar, who are the CEO and vice president of Switchscopes, respectively, noticed a need for such a device when they were students in medical school and shadowing doctors. 

“When a mentor physician identified an important structure of the ear called the tympanic membrane through an otoscope, I had to grab the instrument at an awkward angle without losing place of the viewing field,” he recounted in an email to The News-Letter. “This is a common experience for budding clinicians learning the basics of the physical exam from another doctor.” 

Haque acknowledged that similar products are currently being developed by other companies. But he noted that the particular aim of Switchscopes is to make an affordable product to simplify teaching for medical educators and to accelerate diagnoses in underserved communities. 

The mobile-based device will use the built-in cameras along with additional lenses to examine body systems like eyes, ears or skin. They believe that the ubiquity of smartphones will cheapen production and increase ease of use. For example, medical educators can store images to use later to teach students. 

Like the PediaCORE team, Haque mentioned how one of the main benefits of the FFU accelerator program is learning how to market Switchscopes. 

“We are currently participating in the Hopkins Accelerator program to further develop the business plan, to develop a landing page to attract customers and investors and to identify our best market,” he wrote. 

Currently the trio is developing their minimum viable product which they will test further after collecting feedback. They are also working toward securing intellectual property protection. 

Haque also noted the implications for doctor-patient interaction. According to him, a physical exam is almost ritualistic because it connects a doctor and patient. 

“Making the imaging of body systems reliable and portable will revive this dying art, where doctors can feel confident in their examination skills instead of solely relying on expensive imaging and lab tests,” he expressed.

Rudy Malcom contributed reporting. 

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