Grad students put medical school on hold to bring their startup to life

Grad students put medical school on hold to bring their startup to life

“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has,” said Kashyap Venuthurupalli, who graduated in May. “It could change premature babies’ lives.”

Photo: Joshna Seelam

By Leila Ugincius

It had been on her mind for decades.

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, Debra Hearington had seen her share of infants in isolettes — a special incubator for preemies that measures and regulates certain vitals, such as oxygen, temperature, and humidity. And she had seen the frustratingly anachronistic covers used on these modern incubators.

Nurses cover the machines with cloth, such as blankets, to reduce light and stimulation inside. There’s no uniformity to the fabric as far as material or size. Some families even make their own. In addition to being a poor light regulator, they present infection risks.

With the isolette covered, babies can’t see out, but nurses also can’t see in.

“A baby in a [neonatal intensive care unit] can become unstable at any time,” said Hearington, who specializes in neurology at VCU Health. “And I used to hate it when I was working there … when an alarm would go off and you’d have to go and move the cover [to see what was happening]. The whole thing is, you can’t visualize the baby if there’s a cover on the isolette.”

So when Hearington received an email last year from the VCU College of Engineering requesting clinical problems or ideas that its students could use as their yearlong Capstone Design projects, she immediately knew what to submit: the problem of the poorly devised isolette covers.

Four biomedical engineering students chose her project.

“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has,” said Kashyap Venuthurupalli, who graduated in May. “It could change premature babies’ lives.”

Venuthurupalli has wanted to work in the medical field since middle school when he spent more than 400 hours volunteering at a New Hampshire hospital.

“I would mainly transfer patients back and forth from the ICU, stuff like that,” he said. “But I knew that the environment was something I definitely wanted to be part of. … My end goal is to make people’s lives better. And I thought I could help people by doing medicine.”

While an undergraduate student, Venuthurupalli always planned to attend medical school. However, after spending his senior year working on the capstone project — ultimately named the Brise-solette — he changed his mind, as did his teammates Aniket Kulkarni, Chandana Muktipaty and Joshnamaithili Seelam.

The Brise-solette uses special film to limit light stimuli efficiently from opaque to transparent and is easily programmable to serve a vast array of functions. The name is derived from the words brise-soleil — the architectural term for a device that provides shade — and isolette.

The four classmates agreed to continue the project after graduating in May. They currently are enrolled in the Master of Product Innovation program at the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of the Schools of the Arts and Business, and Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.

“At the beginning of the capstone project, I didn’t think we would be taking this any further than trying to get an A in the class,” Muktipaty said. “To me, it wasn’t even an option at the time.”

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