A team of Clemson University bioengineering students that has been winning accolades for its novel medical device triumphed in its biggest national test so far, taking first place in the undergraduate category and receiving the Arrow Electronics People’s Choice Award at the Collegiate Inventors Competition.
The all-woman team is composed of Jordan Suzanna Cole, Kathleen Fallon, Karly Faith Ripple and Allison Reichart. They created the CatheSure, a device designed to prevent unnecessary surgery in hydrocephalus patients.
The Clemson bioengineers traveled to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia from from Oct. 10-13 to face off against undergraduate teams from four other universities that have created inventions of their own.
The team’s innovative solution, which involves remote pressure monitoring, had previously won or placed highly in several local and regional contests, including second place in last spring’s Atlantic Coast Conference InVenture Prize competition.
When the students began the project in fall 2021, they were seniors majoring in bioengineering. Cole, Fallon, Ripple and Reichart stayed at Clemson after graduation and are now pursuing master’s degrees in the same discipline. Sarah Anne Stevens, who also helped create the CatheSure as an undergraduate, is now a medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina.
The CatheSure is designed to wirelessly detect shunt malfunctions in hydrocephalus patients in less than five minutes. Hydrocephalus patients, often children, suffer from a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in their brains, and a shunt is surgically placed in the body to help drain the fluid.
When the shunt malfunctions, it can result in symptoms, such as nausea, that could be linked to a wide range of maladies and are difficult to diagnose. The CatheSure is designed to make diagnosis faster and less invasive, helping prevent unnecessary exploratory brain surgeries, prolonged hospital stays and repeated radiation exposure.
The Clemson team is advised by John DesJardins, the Hambright Distinguished Professor in Engineering Leadership, and Tyler Harvey, a lecturer, both in the Department of Bioengineering.
Earl Christopher Troup, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Prisma Health who has advised several groups of Clemson bioengineering students, served as clinical advisor to the CatheSure group.
“What has been interesting with this group is that they have complementary strengths, and they are very energetic,” Troup said. “Those factors have pushed them beyond what other groups have been able to do.”
Team members said the CatheSure kept them motivated during senior year and inspired them to pursue master’s degrees. The amount of work they have put into the device over the past year has been about the equivalent to a full-time job, they said.
“We call it our child,” Reichart said. “I think I’ve learned more working on the CatheSure in one year than in my whole life. I’ve never been tested in the ways we’ve been tested.”
All seniors in bioengineering are required to form a team that identifies an unmet medical need with a clinical mentor and then designs a medical device to meet the need. The CatheSure started as one of those projects but soon became much more than a mere graduation requirement.
Team members said they started as acquaintances and classmates and that the project brought them closer together.
“We stayed up until 3 or 4 a.m. in the lab almost every night,” Fallon said. “We figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to put everything together to create a really, really good final product. It was a lot of fun, especially when we started winning and I was able to share that with people I thought of as best friends.”
Cole said that as the group became close knit, she learned about herself and became a better engineer.
“Being surrounded by such great group mates, I learned a lot about my problem-solving skills,” she said. “We were running into obstacles often, such as parts being out of stock. One time something was supposed to be 3D-printed and it wasn’t, so I had to find another way. It was really a great experience getting to know my group mates and knowing that I’ll have them for the rest of my life.”
The Clemson team is among five teams of finalists in the undergraduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Other teams are from Virginia Commonwealth University, Drexel University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“The Clemson team has worked hard for more than a year on the CatheSure, and its position in the competition is well-earned,” DesJardins said. “The Collegiate Inventors Competition is among the nation’s most prestigious contests of its kind. Just being named a finalist is an honor.”
The competition will be held Oct. 11-12 and is sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
As the Clemson bioengineers make preparations for Alexandria, they are building on prior success. The team took first place in spring 2022 in two Clemson University competitions, the CECAS SPARK Challenge and the Walter Hunter Business Plan Competition and Lecture Series Pitch Smackdown.
The SPARK Challenge victory earned the team a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference InVenture Prize competition, where the team took second place. The team also took first in PDMA Carolinas student innovation competition.
The team’s success showed its diverse skill set, Ripple said. The members not only used technical abilities to create the CatheSure, but they also honed the business skills needed to bring it to market. In competitions, the bioengineers have had to answer tough questions about FDA approval, how much the device will cost and when investors can expect to see a return.
“It really prepared us,” Ripple said. “If we want to sell our idea to a bigger company, we could, and it gives us a big leg up for job opportunities in the future.”
DesJardins said the CatheSure team is one of two teams of Clemson bioengineers headed to national competitions. U CANnula won a Clemson bioengineering department competition and has entered the Biomedical Engineering Society’s Senior Design Competition. Members are Laurel Egerter, Rachel Audrey Emerson, Julia Mae Lunt, Lily Elizabeth Sykes and Alex Tedeschi.
Martine LaBerge, chair of the Department of Bioengineering, said the teams’ successes underscore the high level of talent the department is attracting and cultivating.
“We are educating nationally competitive leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the future,” she said. “I congratulate both teams on their well-deserved success and thank the members for representing Clemson so well on the national stage.”
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