Transforming a Research Problem into a Start-Up | By William Parker

The University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative will be presenting its Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities (FURCA) November 3 – 14.  To celebrate the integral role research plays in postsecondary education, The Wanderer will be featuring the stories of talented undergraduates, sharing the meaning and impact of their experiences researching.

Let me tell you a story.

Opening my eyes that morning three years ago was really tough. I had butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t bare the thought of actually getting the big news. I had waited so long, and worked hard, and today was the day. All of that work was going to manifest itself into an acceptance or a rejection.

Then it happened. My phone buzzed; an email was sitting in my inbox addressed from the University of Alberta, Faculty of Medicine. All I had to do was “Slide to unlock,” and my future would be presented to me. The world slowed to a screeching halt as my finger slid across the screen.

I can still feel my heart pounding inside my chest. Receiving the acceptance into Medical School was emotional. I was very excited, but also terrified. My life trajectory was changing and I had a lot of expectations.

My first day on the hospital wards was one that I will never forget. I showed up fifteen minutes early, wore my nicest khaki pants and dress shirt, and sat nervously in the waiting room with my brand new stethoscope awkwardly placed around my neck. The doctor came up to me, introduced himself, and had me follow him into the back room where he was preparing for his day.

My expectation of medicine before my first day was formed by what I saw on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and House, and also by what I read online in Wired, NEJM, Harvard Medicine and other magazines discussing the changing face of medical technology. One of the main reasons why I decided to apply for medical school was the technology involved. I imagined hospitals with touch screen monitors allowing doctors to sift through massive amounts of patient data and images. I pictured using state-of-the-art tools to assist my diagnosis, and I imagined connecting to patients with their health needs at home using technology. Looking back on these ideas, I was very naive. I imagined a world for healthcare that didn’t exist yet. It was only a figment of my imagination created by TV and online magazines.

The doctor brought me into the prep room which had a dusty old Windows computer in the back corner, a plain lunch table along the side wall, and rows of shelving stuffed with hundreds of old-school paper patient charts. A lady in scrubs was pulling a file from one of the shelves and the papers fell onto the floor.

“Can you grab the charts of Mr. John Smith, Mrs. Lucy Bryant and Mrs. Jane Humphrey please?” asked the Doc, giving me my first task.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I felt a mixture of shock and dread. I am a child of the digital era, for Christ’s sake! I didn’t even think file cabinets still existed, especially not in the technologically advanced world of medicine.

I remember thinking how close this experience was to a nightmare as I sang the alphabet song in my head, trying to figure out what letter came before ‘H’, wishing I could just search for the word or use the CTRL-F function. I struggled to find the charts my staff doctor was looking for, but after a good five minutes of searching, I brought the three paper-stuffed charts to the table. The doctor started to explain the patient cases and our day began.

I had many experiences similar to my first day on the wards. It took about 10 days in the hospital before I started to panic inside. I worked hard for four years to find myself in a career set back in the 1960’s? I was starting to think I had made a big mistake. Paper and pen was the main form of record keeping, and most of the time I couldn’t read what people wrote. The only saving grace for me was a website called Netcare. It was a simple web portal doctors used in Alberta to save and share patient lab work, imaging, and medication lists. When I discovered Netcare, my panic decreased, and I shed a sigh of relief. At least there was a website!

As I coped with a new life of scarce technology, I vented to a friend in my medical class.

“Mat, I am losing my mind on the wards! As an engineer, how are you able to cope with the lack of tech and gadgets in the hospitals? It has been driving me crazy. I’ve had to relearn the alphabet song to be able find patient charts, and when I do find them, I can’t read the writing.”

Mat turned to me and his eyes went wide. “I thought it was just me! You feel the same? I couldn’t agree with you more.”

From that moment onward, Mat and I imagined ways to make improvements. In the following weeks we started a student group called Salu, and began to connect with other students and doctors who felt the same way – that healthcare in Canada needed a technology boost. As a student group, we started looking into ways to bring technology to medicine.  Due to a strange chain of events, we began to work on an improvement to the blood pressure sphygmomanometer of all things!

Sphygmomamomo… what? This is the device that doctors use to measure your blood pressure. It is a cuff that wraps around your arm and inflates to squeeze your arm.  The doctor uses his stethoscope to listen to blood sounds and measure blood pressure from the needle on the dial. We learned in medical classes that blood pressure measurements using these devices are very tedious to perform. Patients cannot drink coffee or smoke cigarettes before a measurement, they need to be sitting a certain way, their arm needs to be held at the level of their heart, the cuff needs to be a certain size in relation to the body, etc. The list of rules was endless; Mat and I felt there had to be a better way. We began to formulate an idea for a sensor around your wrist that could measure blood pressure without squeezing your arm. If our idea worked, people could wear a watch-like device to monitor blood pressure whenever they wanted.

In order to figure out if our idea could work, we needed to do research. We started with a thorough primary literature search and created a plan, but that was as far as we could go being up to our eyebrows in student loan debt. One day walking through the U of A Students’ Union Building, we noticed a poster for the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI) as part of the Faculty of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. It advertised $5 000 to help students conduct self-chosen research with a professor supervisor. We didn’t know if our project would be relevant to what the URI was looking for, but we applied anyway. The URI team was unbelievably supportive and became extremely excited about our idea.  Before we knew it, their assessment committee had approved our application and we had enough money to see if our idea was feasible.

After eight months researching and developing our blood pressure watch device, we were able to prove our idea would work. The realization was incredibly rewarding! There was hope for a medical system filled with technology, and Mat and I were playing a small role in it.

Because of our work with the URI office in SUB, Mat and I have taken our idea to the next level. We incorporated Salu Design Group, Inc. as a start-up company in the second quarter of 2014, and we are now building a working prototype. We have an amazing team of industrial designers, engineers, software developers, and business experts to help us get this company off the ground.

The very notion that the University of Alberta has created FURCA and the URI is unbelievable. It means that the U of A believes enough in its students to give them the freedom and responsibility to manage their own research initiatives. I don’t know of many schools that afford their students this opportunity. Going through this entire program has been very rewarding. I’ve learned a ton and had a blast doing it!

Illustration by Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod

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