You are here

Putting Personal Health in the Palm of Your Hand

Philanthropic support helps Hopkins' Aezon Health take its "tricorder" prototype the last mile in the global Qualcomm XPrize competition
Posted May 19, 2016

When the leaders of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize announced that Aezon Health was a finalist in its $10 million global competition to develop an at-home medical screening device, the Johns Hopkins community rejoiced. But one person, Aezon team leader Tatiana Rypinski, Engr '15, didn't celebrate for long.

"I was excited for a split second, but almost immediately, I switched into overdrive and thought, 'How are we going to do this now?'" Rypinski recalls.

This refers to the challenge of manufacturing 30 identical prototypes by May 2015, when XPrize entries had to be submitted to the organizers for consumer testing. The final step would require a lot of hard work, but also additional money. Yet the 19-person team of undergraduate students from the Whiting School of Engineering and Krieger School of Arts and Sciences met its deadline after receiving support from both the Ralph O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund and the Whiting School’s Dean's Leadership and Cohen Translational Engineering funds.

"That was the most important funding for us, time-wise. We were out of options, and Hopkins really came through," says Neil Rens, Whiting School Class of 2016, adding that the team already had come up with the resources to meet several other financial hurdles — including the XPrize competition's $5,000 registration fee. The O'Connor and Whiting School grants enabled Rypinski, Rens, and their teammates to create duplicates of the Aezon device, a three-part system including a vitals monitoring unit, a fluids testing box, and a smartphone app that communicates with both.

The O'Connor Fund, established by trustee emeritus Ralph O'Connor, A&S '51, and his wife, Becky, supports student-led teams developing technologies with a clear commercial focus as part of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures. The Whiting School's Cohen Fund, established by Neil Cohen, Engr '83, and his wife, Sherry, provides faculty and students with critical early funding needed to move their research out of the laboratory into general use.

Relationships Rypinski and Rens built with Technology Ventures and T.E. "Ed" Schlesinger, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean in the Whiting School, boosted by Aezon's rising campus stardom as an XPrize finalist, facilitated the financial support.

Rens says the entire team felt a responsibility to use the funds to their fullest, because many other student groups are "working on exciting things, but haven't had the same resources that we've had."

"There's a strong desire, and a growing track record of success, amongst students to do activities like Aezon does, but the big pain point is resources. Donors can give to this growing forum and help us commercialize what's happening on campus. These resources are only going to become more important going forward."

Although the XPrize organizers in January announced a one-year extension of the contest to allow for additional consumer testing, the Aezon experience is already paying dividends for members of the Hopkins community. Rypinski, who graduated last May, works in regulatory and product engineering for the Fortune 500 medical device company Stryker. She says she uses what she learned through Aezon on a near-daily basis. 

"I gained so much experience in developing a medical device from start to finish, getting a prototype running," Rypinski says. "But the process doesn't end there. I'm building on that here, learning how you get from the prototype stage to a product that's actually out the door and in patients' hands."

Rens will graduate this May and afterward will attend Stanford Medical School. During his admissions interviews, Rens says, Aezon came up frequently and enabled him to give an informed perspective on the intersection of technology and health care.

"I wouldn't have had that perspective without Aezon," he says.