3 student-designed start-ups to boost healthcare

26 October 2016

Students pitch their big ideas that could transform Australian healthcare at the University of Sydney’s inaugural Innovation Week.

An apps that improves mental health without the user knowing; technology that connects doctors and patients in rural communities and a revolutionary new prosthetic for heart surgery are the three finalists in the University of Sydney’s inaugural Innovation Week Student Challenge start-up category.

Three teams will vie for $10,000 in seed funding to make their vision a reality in a final pitch on Wednesday night. The finalists were selected from more than 70 entries, and are led by current students from multiple disciplines, including computer science, biomedical engineering, architecture, medicine and business.

The winner will also receive support and industry advice from Sydney student startup accelerator INCUBATE, the University’s office of Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships, and discipline relevant academics. 

As a judge I was impressed by the quality of the student applications.
Professor Stephanie Watson

Professor Stephanie Watson, who leads a research program in the Sydney Medical School focused on innovative solutions for ocular repair and regeneration, will help judge the Student Challenge.

“We’re looking for an outstanding idea, solution or innovation that will help make the future of healthcare more accessible, efficient and a better experience for patients and families,” she said.

“As the population ages and healthcare costs increase, innovation will provide solutions to both simple and complex health problems. Innovation starts with an idea. Fostering ideas, particularly of undergraduates who are immersed in a highly stimulating learning environment, can reap future rewards.

“As a judge I was impressed by the quality of the student applications. They were tuned into current and growing problems in the health system and focussed on improving patient and community health outcomes”

1. Improving heart prostheses

About the student:

Biomedical engineering and commerce student Ben Ferguson describes his team’s innovating improvement to heart valve transplants is borne of a shared vision to improve the lives of children and elderly sufferers of valvular disease and make Australia the world leader of the tissue engineering industry.

About the pitch: 

The ‘Evalve’, developed by Ferguson and fellow biomedical engineering students Benjamin Lindsay, Sheikh Rakib and Kevin Wong, uses stem cells and high-tech ‘scaffolding’ to effectively regenerate heart valves with tissue – eliminating the need for invasive artificial prosthetics or non-permanent transplants from pigs, which are the current options for patients.

“These ‘band-aid’ solutions are a crude attempt to substitute a critical part of our body and suffer numerous design flaws,” says Ferguson, who will begin an internship with Allegra Orthopaedics when this semester ends.

“Evalve is both revolutionary and realisable using biomaterials that facilitate the growth of brand new heart valve. No heart surgery or long-term drug therapy is needed.”

2. Bringing healthcare consultation to the bush

About the student:

With over seven million Australians living in rural areas, access to quality healthcare is limited and often exacerbated by a reluctance to seek face-to-face help. Master of Management student Ben Marell aims to fix that with a clever solution that removes the need to travel vast distances for a simple check-up.

About the pitch:

Dubbed CheckupMate, Marell’s start up idea is a consultation platform that allows patients to interact with healthcare professionals through a mix of existing technology and artificial intelligence. Crucially, it’s also designed to work in areas where internet speeds are slow.

Patients and doctors communicate via a streamlined text chat-style function that uses pre-determined questions to allow doctors to zero in on a patients’ symptoms and provide professional advice from a distance and over low bandwidth.

“These questions go beyond plain text chat and are interactive,” Marell explains. “Some questions might automatically open the camera or voice recorder for measuring breathing, for example. It’s all a streamlined experience without the patient needing to leave the app,”

The postgrad student sees CheckupMate as having the potential to make a difference in developing nations with poor internet infrastructure, akin to remote parts of Australia.

3. Colouring kittens for mental health

About the student:

The app market is flooded with mental health apps that while useful for some, tend to be limited by the fact they’re categorised as ‘mental health’ apps. According to Computer Science student, Angela Mao, the best way an app can improve a user’s mental wellbeing is to do so without them even knowing it.

About the pitch:

This is the philosophy behind UglyKitten – the curiously named app that encourages relaxation and mindfulness with the help of an adorable cat and a digital colouring book. Developed with fellow computer science student Sebastian Bird and Bachelor of Animation student Michelle Ciam, the concept emphasises simplicity and subtle use of colour. Users open the app and meet a kitten called Ugly, who they take care of by regular interaction and colouring in the kitty and their virtual home.

Without knowing it, regularly using UglyKitten encourages relaxation and positive mindsets with colour association.

“The unique part of the application is our colour-fading feature,” says Mao “Colours associated with a more positive mindset take longer to fade than colours associated with a less-positive mindset. More negative individuals will need to return to the app more often to interact with Ugly and therefore have more opportunities to relax their minds.”

Check out the finalists for the Innovation Week Student Challenge research proposal category.