Improved Intubation Tool Wins Top Prize in Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering Design Competition

Axexo, an arm exoskeleton. Virginia Tech

NIH and VentureWell award teams who develop real solutions to real problems.

The winners of the eighth annual Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge developed simple but effective solutions that can make a significant difference to the patient population, such as a tool to make intubation easier and more accurate and a rapid screening test for C. difficile infections (CDI). The DEBUT challenge, totaling $65,000 in prizes, is supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of the National Institutes of Health, and VentureWell, a non-profit higher-education network that cultivates revolutionary ideas and promising inventions.

DEBUT received 52 applications from 32 universities in 18 states, engaging a total of 250 students this year. NIBIB selected four winning teams for designs that excel according to four criteria: the significance of the problem being addressed; the impact on clinical care; the innovation of the design; and the existence of a working prototype. An additional prize for a project focused on HIV/AIDS was awarded with funds from the NIH Office of AIDS Research. The winning project helps avoid the spread of a blood-borne illness such as HIV by preventing scalpel blades from causing lacerations in the operating room. VentureWell selected two more teams based on two additional criteria: market potential and patentability. The prizes will be awarded in a ceremony at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference in Philadelphia on Oct. 17, 2019.

“The DEBUT awards recognize undergraduate student design teams working on challenging healthcare problems that impact millions of people around the world,” said Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D., Director of NIBIB. “We are proud to team up with VentureWell and BMES to celebrate these exceptionally talented students and their mentors. Its inspiring to learn about each team’s commitment to make a difference in the lives of patients.” 

NIBIB’s first-place prize, renamed this year to Steven H. Krosnick prize, of $20,000 went to In Touch: An Intubation Guidance System. Intubations are often performed by non-expert healthcare workers outside of the operating room such as emergency medical technicians or residents and can fail as often as 49% of the time, which can cause hypoxia, hypotension, and even death. The team from Columbia University, New York City, developed a tool to help make intubation easier by providing the user with feedback that informs them when they are incorrectly pushing the tube into the trachea or esophagus. Limited testing has shown that it significantly decreases the amount of time it takes a novice to correctly intubate, and greatly increases the chance that they will be successful on their first try.

The second-place NIBIB award of $15,000 went to a team from Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, that developed a rapid screening test called C. Differently to screen for CDI. The current tests for CDI take more than an hour, require a trained lab technician, and are costly. More than 90% of those tests will be negative. C. Differently developed a test that can rule out CDI within five minutes. This could save hospitals and estimated $250 million in unnecessary testing costs. In addition, since it is paper-based, portable, and does not require expertise to use, it is significantly cheaper than traditional testing — lowering costs for hospitals and patients.

NIBIB’s third-place prize of $10,000 was awarded to a team from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, for their device that helps patients with tracheostomies. A tracheostomy involves cutting an opening in the neck where a tube can be inserted to allow air to go into the trachea and reach the lungs of patients who experience difficulty breathing.  While this procedure allows a patient to breathe on his own, it also prevents him from being able to speak since most of the air from the lungs goes out through the tracheostomy tube and cannot drive the vocal cords into vibration. Another major problem is that patients suffer from an excess of mucus buildup in the throat because they are breathing in dry air that has bypassed the normal pathway through the nasal cavity that regulates its humidity. The attachment developed by the students combines a filter that captures humidity (reducing mucus) and a plug that blocks exhalation and enables the patients to speak. It is designed so the patient can switch back and forth easily between the two functions. The device is also re-usable.

The Venture Prize of $15,000 was awarded by VentureWell to The Cath Path, a device that helps women to self-catheterize, designed by a team from Stanford University, California. More than 250,000 women in the United States suffer from neurogenic bladder — a condition in which bladder control is compromised. The solution to this is to use a catheter four to six times a day to void the bladder. However, females often face difficulty locating the urethra and inserting the catheter correctly. This can result in social embarrassment and urinary tract infections. The Cath Path features a vaginal insert that aligns the catheter guide with the urethra and helps women insert the catheter without assistance.

VentureWell’s Design Excellence Prize of $5,000 went to Axexo, an arm exoskeleton developed by a team from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Virginia. Medical arm exoskeletons are used to support a user’s arm against the load of gravity. They can be used for medical reasons, such as stroke patients who need extra support, or by professionals performing delicate or repetitive motions for long periods of time such as doctors. Currently available exoskeletons are either fully supportive or compact, but not both. The Axexo was designed to be compact enough to be worn under a shirt while still supportive enough that the user’s arm feels nearly weightless as they perform tasks.

“This year’s winners have developed compelling solutions addressing a broad range of urgent needs,” said Phil Weilerstein, President of VentureWell. “The DEBUT submissions demonstrated the application of effective design principles and great ingenuity in applying emerging scientific and technological breakthroughs to create innovative solutions that are designed to improve patient safety and meet regulatory requirements.”

About the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering: NIBIB’s mission is to improve health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies. The Institute is committed to integrating the physical and engineering sciences with the life sciences to advance basic research and medical care. NIBIB supports emerging technology research and development within its internal laboratories and through grants, collaborations, and training. More information is available at the NIBIB website:

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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