By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs
It had been on her mind for decades.
As a pediatric nurse practitioner, Debra Hearington had seen her share of infants in isolettes — a special incubator for preemies that measures and regulates certain vitals, such as oxygen, temperature and humidity. And she had seen the frustratingly anachronistic covers used on these modern incubators.
Nurses cover the machines with cloth, such as blankets, to reduce light and stimulation inside. There’s no uniformity to the fabric as far as material or size. Some families even make their own. In addition to being a poor light regulator, they present infection risks.
With the isolette covered, babies can’t see out, but nurses also can’t see in.
“A baby in a [neonatal intensive care unit] can become unstable at any time,” said Hearington, a neurology nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. “And I used to hate it when I was working there … when an alarm would go off and you'd have to go and move the cover [to see what was happening]. The whole thing is, you can't visualize the baby if there's a cover on the isolette.”
So when Hearington received an email last year from the VCU College of Engineering requesting clinical problems or ideas that its students could use as their yearlong Capstone Design projects, she immediately knew what to submit: the problem of the poorly devised isolette covers.
Four biomedical engineering students chose her project.
“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has,” said Kashyap Venuthurupalli, who graduated in May. “It could change premature babies' lives.”
“A baby in a [neonatal intensive care unit] can become unstable at any time. And I used to hate it when I was working there … when an alarm would go off and you'd have to go and move the cover. The whole thing is, you can't visualize the baby if there's a cover on the isolette.”
Venuthurupalli has wanted to work in the medical field since middle school, when he spent more than 400 hours volunteering at a New Hampshire hospital.
“I would mainly transfer patients back and forth from the ICU, stuff like that,” he said. “But I knew that the environment was something I definitely wanted to be part of. … My end goal is to make people's lives better. And I thought I could help people by doing medicine.”
While an undergraduate student, Venuthurupalli always planned to attend medical school. However, after spending his senior year working on the capstone project — ultimately named the Brise-solette — he changed his mind, as did his teammates Aniket Kulkarni, Chandana Muktipaty and Joshnamaithili Seelam.
The Brise-solette uses special film to limit light stimuli efficiently from opaque to transparent, and is easily programmable to serve a vast array of functions. The name is derived from the words brise-soleil — the architectural term for a device that provides shade — and isolette.
The four classmates agreed to continue the project after graduating in May. They currently are enrolled in the Master of Product Innovation program at the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of the Schools of the Arts and Business, and Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.
“At the beginning of the capstone project, I didn't think we would be taking this any further than trying to get an A in the class,” Muktipaty said. “To me, it wasn't even an option at the time.”
But as they started competing for spots in different showcases and events, that all changed, she said.
“As we continued to work on our project, we saw what a difference we could make, and that possibility [of pursuing the project outside of class] started to become a reality,” said Muktipaty, who serves as marketing officer for Kilo Medical Solutions, the limited liability company the students started to market the Brise-solette.
“We had the amazing opportunity to present at the National Academy of Inventors as the only fully undergraduate team of the six student teams invited to compete, and by judges’ feedback we were in the top three,” Muktipaty said. “We also won the Design in Excellence award at the Senior Design Capstone 2018 event. After the feedback we had gotten at NAI and at our capstone event, I knew that this was something worth pursuing that could really make a difference.”
To raise money to finalize the patent for the next-generation prototype, the students continue to enter competitions such as the fifth annual U.Pitch National Elevator Pitch Competition & Showcase and the UpRiver & rvAwesome Founders Celebration. The students received a grant from VentureWell, a national organization that supports the work of early stage inventors. They next plan to enter the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge and apply for federal grants such as the Small Business Innovation Research program.
“I never expected to stumble into the startup world when I started my capstone project,” Seelam said. “I knew I wanted it to be more than just another project to get an A in, but didn't have any ideas on the how. I also had strong gut feelings from time to time where I felt like the project could be bigger than what I [envisioned] it to be.”
“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has. It could change premature babies' lives.”
The project’s immediate clinical value appealed to Kulkarni.
“If executed properly, it would generate a technology that could be actively functioning in the hospital within a few years,” he said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something that would last, and I soon made the decision that medical school can wait.”
Because caregivers can manually control how much light passes through, and light cycling helps stimulate growth hormones to develop a circadian rhythm, the Brise-solette could significantly lower costs for hospitals and families, Venuthurupalli said.
“There are a lot of benefits of light cycling,” he said, citing a study that shows that NICUs that use light cycling could discharge infants up to nine days earlier on average. “Each day in the NICU costs $3,500.”
Hearington said the team must have worked incredibly hard to develop the expertise needed to make the Brise-solette.
“I have been so impressed with those students and their ability to take a clinical problem in an area that they really had no experience,” she said. “I've been very impressed with their research and then coming up with their own ideas to make the product even better.”