Student Startup that Monitors Neonatal Vitals Is One Step Closer to Reality

Tess Cauvel and Sona Shah of Neopenda
—Photo courtesy of Neopenda

Last year, three biomedical engineering (BME) MS students—Teresa Cauvel, Rebecca Peyser, and Sona Shah—took BME Lecturer Katherine E. Reuther’s new design course and came up with an idea for a health technology startup they called Neopenda. Their concept, born in January and shaped through Reuther’s class over the spring semester, was a low-cost, low-power, low-maintenance way to monitor neonatal vitals through engineered “hats,” a headband containing a small circuit that measures heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, and blood oxygen saturation in critically ill infants and then sends the data to a centralized monitoring device.

In April, the team won third place in the Engineering School’s Venture Competition, taking home $10,000 for their idea. Their winnings helped fund a summer trip to Uganda, where they met with doctors and nurses to assess their clinical needs for a neonatal vital signs monitor and to refine the product for optimum use in low-resource medical settings.

“We visited hospitals where a single nurse was responsible for monitoring more than 30 babies simultaneously. This is a tremendous workload, and it’s difficult for nurses to respond in a timely fashion to babies in distress,” says Shah. “We’re building a solution to allow nurses to monitor the health status of all the newborns under their care at once, effectively directing their attention to where it’s needed most.”

The students took a summer trip to Uganda, where they met with doctors and nurses to assess their clinical needs and refine the product.
—Photo courtesy of Neopenda

The students formed Neopenda over the summer and recently were among seven teams accepted into Relevant Health, a new health tech startup accelerator in the Washington, DC area, close to a large network spanning the health, entrepreneur, research, and regulatory communities. This rigorous five-month program offers an intensive product-focused curriculum to give founders of health tech startups the skills to develop, position, and launch a viable product. They have access to the facility along with other support that includes up to $50,000 in funding, mentorship, and access to the local health tech ecosystem.

Shah and Cauvel plan to finalize a minimum viable product at Relevant Health and to then manufacture prototypes. They hope to conduct pilot studies this summer to assess the functionality of their device and its initial impact in Uganda.

"This project has made great strides since it was first conceptualized in my design course in the spring less than a year ago,” Reuther says. “Neopenda is a great example of how education and support from Columbia Engineering combined with extremely motivated and talented individuals can result in significant opportunities beyond the classroom."

The team’s mission is to engineer health care solutions that give newborns in low-resource settings the healthy lives they deserve. “We are passionate about applying our strong technical backgrounds toward designing appropriate technologies that help improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations,” Cauvel explains.

“Yes,” adds Shah, “Eliminating preventable newborn deaths is within reach and we are excited to be a part of this critical global effort.”

—by Holly Evarts

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