Infection-fighting device wins $25,000 in 2017 Discovery Competition

A medical device built by undergraduate students to prevent infections in patients using catheters has won $25,000 in the 2017 Discovery Competition, sponsored by the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Project Starfish is a student startup company developing a biomedical device to reduce catheter-associated urinary tract infections.

The winning team, named Project Starfish, is creating a device that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light (UVC), which kills bacteria, molds, viruses and other pathogens, to continuously and effectively kill bacteria in urinary catheters. About 75 percent of urinary tract infections acquired in the hospital are associated with the use of a catheter, and up to 25 percent of hospitalized patients in the hospital receive a urinary catheter, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Project Starfish has received a provisional patent for its device and has confirmed with FDA consultants that the device will follow a relatively inexpensive regulatory pathway, said Elizabeth Bowman, a team member who received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in commercial entrepreneurship May 19.

With Bowman, other team members are:

  • John Bisognono, a sophomore majoring in computer science with a minor in bioinformatics
  • Elliot Jaffe, a BS/MS student in electrical engineering with a second major in physics
  • Caleb Ji, a first-year student majoring in math
  • Daniel Lane, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering
  • Jessica Miller, founder and an MD/PhD student at the School of Medicine and in biomedical engineering
  • Vineet Chauhan and John Henschen, MBA students in the Olin Business School
  • Jay Vasileva, a graduating biomedical engineering student from Saint Louis University
The team plans to incorporate as a startup this summer.

“We’re really glad that we won this competition because we needed to the money to move us forward to the next step,” said Bowman, who plans to continue working on the project in addition to working as a health-care consultant in Silicon Valley.

The team’s initial funding to build a 3-D prototype and a small circuit board came from Sling Health (formerly IDEA Labs).

The School of Engineering & Applied Science launched the Discovery Competition in 2012 to promote new and innovative discoveries to solve challenges or needs. The competition provides engineering undergraduate students the forum to explore their entrepreneurial interests with support from mentors, to use their creativity to develop solutions for real-world problems and to compete for financial resources that could help turn their ideas into businesses. The annual competition is funded by Engineering alumni.

Taking second place, a $2,500 cash prize and $5,000 in legal in-kind services from Polsinelli was the CyberPowered Home LLC team, which developed a device to manage electric energy use in the home and provide smart-home functionality that could save users as much as 25 percent a year on electricity. Team members Will Blanchard, a junior majoring in computer engineering with second majors in financial engineering and economics & strategy, and Allen Nikka, who received a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master of engineering in computer science with a minor in computer science May 19, say the device could pay for itself in two to five years and would benefit both homeowners and electric utility providers. Blanchard and Nikka plan to start a company this summer to continue work on the project.

Taking third place, which includes a $2,500 cash prize and $2,500 in in-kind legal services from Polsinelli, is SomniScan, a low-cost, in-home test for sleep disorders. More than 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, but up to 80 percent of them are undiagnosed due to the cost and access to overnight, in-hospital sleep studies. The SomniScan sleep-screening system would detect the presence of sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, using a smartphone and a $40-$80 purchase. The study would generate a report that a patient could take to his or her physician to follow up for further care.

Team members are:

  • Kenny Kim, who received a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering with minors in electrical engineering and biology May 19
  • Christian Shewmake, who received a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s in systems science & engineering with a minor in computer science May 19
  • Teja Vallapuri, who received bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering May 19

The team plans to incorporate this summer to continue work on the technology.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society's greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.