Engineering, Business students continue work on wearable heart monitor

Caption: Cardian members Jon Dyke, Marcus Massok and Wesley Bosman explain how their device works at the VCU School of Engineering’s 2017 Capstone Design Expo.

By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs

More than 350,000 cardiac arrests occur in the United States each year, at least half of which go unwitnessed. Only about 5 percent of sufferers survive.

A VCU School of Engineering Capstone Design team is working to change that.

The aftermath of unwitnessed cardiac arrest is an occurrence that Joseph Ornato, M.D., chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Emergency Medicine and a certified internist and cardiologist, sees all too often, and that prompted him to share his concerns with colleagues at the VCU School of Engineering.

“Every minute that your heart is stopped, you lose a 10 percent chance that your life will be saved,” he said. “In 10 minutes, you’re down to 10 percent.”

Marcus Massok, an entrepreneurship student in the VCU School of Business who is part of this collaborative Capstone team, finds the mortality rate atrocious.

“It’s advertised as 10 percent [survival] for those that are treated. However for the total numbers, including dead-on-arrival, it’s only roughly 5 percent,” Massok said. “On top of that, the risk factors for cardiac arrest are continuing to increase, as more than 25 percent of the population will have some form of heart disease by 2021. This begs the question, how are we going to help these people if no one is around to see it? And that’s where we come in.”

The group of graduating seniors from the VCU schools of Engineering and Business has teamed up to create a simple and easy-to-use wearable device that monitors the wearer’s heart rate and automatically calls 911 emergency services if a cardiac arrest occurs. It’s based on a vision that Ornato has had for decades. Buildings have smoke alarms that mitigate the chance of serious damage to buildings, he noted, yet human beings don’t have similar protection.

Branded as Cardian — a hybrid of “cardiac” and “guardian” — the project pairs the wearable device with a powerful database that uses web and application services to seamlessly integrate care between the patient, family, EMS, physicians and the hospital.

The Cardian team, under faculty adviser Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, presented its device at the VCU School of Engineering’s annual Capstone Design Expo, which showcases engineering students’ innovative research and design prototypes from their year long senior Capstone Design course. The required class teaches leadership, teamwork and design skills. However, one skill the class cannot teach in depth is entrepreneurship — a critical component of taking a product to market.

So, last semester, Bennett C. Ward, Ph.D., director of project outreach and Capstone Design coordinator, and L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A., executive associate dean of innovation and outreach, met with School of Business leadership to discuss how the two schools could work together. The idea of pairing Capstone Design students with business students from Susan Coombs’ and Jay Markiewicz’s entrepreneurship capstone course, New Venture Strategy and Initiation, was born.

Not everyone was optimistic that the collaboration would work.

“In the beginning, we thought, ‘We have to work with business students, that’s going to be awful,’” said Jon Dyke, an electrical engineering major on the Cardian team. “[But at] our first couple of meetings, they did have some good ideas.”

For instance, Dyke said, the team originally envisioned the device as a watch, but market research by Massok and fellow business team member James Walters showed that a watch was not the best device to use. For one thing, many people already like to wear a nice watch, and no one wants to wear two watches.

“[We pulled] together the business side to help the engineers see how this could be a viable business and then actually started thinking about turning it into a company and focusing on those aspects,” Walters said.

Dyke developed Cardian’s hardware with electrical engineering major Majid AlAshari and computer engineering major Ash Al Gumaei. The three were responsible for designing the printed circuit board and all of its components, including filters and LED sensors. One of the biggest difficulties was filtering out surrounding noise from the heartbeat, Al Gumaei said.

“We got a lot of noise,” he said. “It took us a while to design the filters, almost a semester. … Mainly the heartbeat is a really small signal from one to six hertz and the noise around us is like 60 hertz. This is the main reason why we need to filter out the noise.”

Another obstacle, AlAshari said, was hand-placing the components on a PCB small enough to fit on a wristband.

“The skin contact is actually the simplest part of the watch,” AlAshari said. “Obviously if you’re not wearing the [device], it’s not going to be picking up anything. We don’t want it calling the ambulance because that will [irritate] a lot of people. It’s basically a way to avoid false positives.”

The device connects with a phone through the app and software developed by computer science majors Justin Artis and Wes Bosman.

They designed “an Android application that would be able to receive data from a hardware heart rate monitor,” Bosman said, “and then be able to take those data and display them back and — in the case of cardiac arrest — simulate some kind of alert in which we could possibly send out text messages for instant location.”

Ornato calls the device the realization of a dream.

“I’m one of the people that, when someone can’t be resuscitated, has to go tell the family that their dad’s not coming home,” he said. “I set a goal very early in my training career that if I could make a difference in my journey, if I could just one less time per year not have to go to a family and give them bad news, but instead give them good news, that was my goal.”

Now as the year comes to a close, the value of the collaboration between schools has become clear to both sides.

“This is a partnership between engineering and business that‘s never been done before,” Massok said. “But the value that is being yielded out of it is priceless. We are taught to work on project teams in school, but normally within our own disciplines, so within our own knowledge base. Having to cross those boundaries and speak another language is really something that I think will set students apart upon graduating and I think it’s something that the school should really focus on going into the future.”

“Having to cross those boundaries and speak another language is really something that I think will set students apart.”

The collaboration has also produced an ideal benefit. Often innovative and beneficial Capstone Design products fall to the wayside after team members graduate and go their separate ways. Cardian is the “glaring example” compared with other teams, Ward said, in that all seven members will continue with the project after graduation.

“We just see that there’s an actual need for this,” Walters said. “And at the stage we’re at, we’ve done such great work. We don’t see why not, we’re so close. … It’s actually a real thing and we can actually see it working and going with VCU’s slogan, ‘Make it real.’”

Walters and Massok have already sold their toughest market on the idea that Cardian can be a viable product — their engineering teammates.

“They really convinced us,” Artis said. “They did their job really well. They convinced us that it was going to be a thing. The biggest thing I trust is the guys. I believe the guys know what they’re doing and we can make this into a big thing.”