Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research
Kourosh Parham, MD, Ph.D. has come up with a blood test that can detect hearing loss far sooner than existing tests. Early detection can potentially prevent further hearing loss, Parham told a group of medical practitioners, faculty and students from engineering, business, medicine and other UConn graduate programs at Healthcare Solutions Night, held recently at UConn Health.
Many people suffer from hearing loss, but hearing tests are limited and fail to capture the full range of hearing, he said. Researchers are working on medications to prevent further hearing damage – once it has been detected. But, at this point, he can’t give patients their test results until he has 90 blood samples to test at once. He was seeking someone to help him find a way to test blood samples individually.
As soon as he finished his presentation, people in the audience suggested ideas and offered to collaborate.
Parham was one of five clinicians and researchers at the recent cross-pollination event aimed at developing solutions to pressing health-care problems. He and the other presenters had devised a potential solution to a problem and came hoping others with different skills could help bring the ideas to market. In addition, Thanh Duc Nguyen, Ph.D., a member of the department of mechanical engineering who invented an implantable, dissolvable sensor, was looking to partner with clinicians who could apply his biodegradable sensor to their practice. He knew he had a great idea, but needed to demonstrate its ability to positively impact medical conditions.
Teams that formed during the team-building portion of the event will compete for two $1,500 Healthcare Solutions Seed Grants offered through the Accelerate UConn program. Accelerate UConn is a joint operation of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Accelerate UConn’s goal is to build and support cross-disciplinary teams that improve the likelihood of commercial success of UConn technologies. The funds are intended to help the winning teams begin working together and prepare for future competitions where they can win additional funding and business development support.
“Sometimes you get unexpected solutions when you mix the crowd together,” said Mostafa Analoui, Ph.D. executive director of Venture Development, Office of the Vice President for Research and the evening’s host. Anne Diamond, CEO of UConn John Dempsey Hospital and Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the School of Medicine, welcomed and encouraged the attendees, a mixture of medical students, graduate students, faculty and clinicians. “This is a great way to spur an accelerated effort to commercialize academic research,” Liang said.
The other presenters were Dr. Santhanam Lakshminarayanan, Division of Rheumatology; Dr. Joel Levine, Colon Cancer Prevention Program; Dr. Courtney Townsel, Department of Maternal-Fetal Medicine; and Heather Spear, M.S.N., A.P.R.N., Department of Psychiatry.
After Parham and other presenters explained their concepts, attendees from the various disciplines were invited to approach whichever presenter they felt they could help, given their various disciplinary expertise or interest. Evan R. Jellison, Ph.D., assistant professor, immunology, who runs the Flow Cytometry lab at UConn Health, met with Parham to discuss ideas for an alternate, more efficient and individualized blood test method.
“We are planning to apply for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant to fund our collaboration,” Parham said following the meeting.
Another presenter, psychiatric nurse Heather Spear, held her son’s teddy bear while explaining her idea for a device that could be imbedded into a stuffed animal to help sooth delirious patients. She outlined the problem faced in hospitals nationwide, pointing out that as Baby Boomers age, the challenge will snowball.
More than 40 percent of the patients admitted to UConn John Dempsey Hospital are over 65, and nationally, about 35 percent of admitted patients are at least age 65. About 10 to 31 percent of patients 65 and older come to hospitals in a state of delirium, said Spear, a leader in the NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders) program at UConn Health. Once they arrive, another 11 to 42 percent develop delirium.
As a result, these patients’ hospital stays are prolonged, increasing their risk of infection, decline, continued confusion and death. These factors lead to increased costs and decreased quality of life.
Spear hopes to create a hospital-acceptable bear that has a four-quadrant, digital panel imbedded in its belly. When patients touch the bear, whether intentionally or accidently, they would see and hear either a video of a loved one, the date and time, video clips of TV shows from their younger years or music from their youth. The bear has to withstand being thrown, since delirious patients can become agitated, anxious or disoriented.
During the team-building portion of the event, electrical engineer Insoo Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of medicine at the UConn Health, offered Spear new ideas to advance her product’s development. “The solution to your idea is a software design rather than a device,” he said with confidence. “We can program the tablet. A student can write an app.”
“To me, it was rocket science,” she said later. “I was thinking, ‘This is exactly why I came to this event.’ ”
She’s had this idea for a few years, but jumped on the chance to present it to colleagues with different skills, she said.
“I was somewhat nervous, but I knew that I only had to present what I know,” Spear said. “It was a very welcoming audience. They’re there because they want to be there. They’re hoping to hear something they can jump in on and invent and make.”
It was comforting to see a few other nurses in the audience, she said. She wasn’t sure her idea would gain any traction and was thrilled at the response. Other nurses who work with dementia patients felt it would help their patients who experience memory loss.
Kim invited Spear to attend the Senior Design Pitch Day on March 27, where third-year biomedical engineering students hear about different ideas that they could work on for their senior design projects. Energized, she’s working on her application for the Healthcare Solutions Seed Grant offered through the Accelerate UConn program.
Accelerate UConn is the University’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Site. Its mission is to bring scientific discoveries and capabilities from the lab to the marketplace. Participating teams receive $3,000 in seed funding for their new ventures and an introduction to the most critical elements of the I-Corps Curriculum and Lean Launchpad methodology. Over seven weeks, teams learn how to assess the market opportunity for their product or technology.
Each workshop provides hands-on training in the basics of business planning and is delivered by entrepreneurs and faculty members. These coaches provide personalized guidance and feedback to help teams construct an evidence-based business model and market-entry strategy. Participating teams also receive $3,000 in seed funding for their ventures. Accelerate UConn is open to all university faculty and students. For more information, visit www.accelerate.uconn.edu.