The prescription is a familiar one for medical devices designed for use in underdeveloped parts of the world: “They want something that’s fast, portable, easy to use and inexpensive.”
The speaker is Peter Suzuki, one of three sophomores at Rice University who make up OxyCal, a design team developing a device to measure the concentration of oxygen given to patients during surgery and in hospital neonatal units. Suzuki, whose major is bioengineering (BioE), partners with Preston Quine in mechanical engineering and Nishant Verma in BioE.
The trio met in the fall of their freshman year in ENGI 120, “Introduction to Engineering Design.” The project was first proposed to them by Dr. Samantha Jacques, formerly director of biomedical engineering at Texas Children’s Hospital.
“They need to be able to calibrate the mixture of air and pure oxygen that is given to a patient. They need an oxygen-analyzing device to determine if an oxygen source is functioning at the output it is expected to. The oxygen analyzer also needs to aid in the repair of broken oxygen sources,” Verma said.
The cheapest oxygen analyzer already on the market is priced at about $200, and more sophisticated models cost many thousands of dollars. The team’s goal is to develop a device with a retail cost of $20 to $30.
OxyCal is now on its sixth prototype. It started with a modified analog voltmeter resembling a television remote-control unit. An increase in voltage signals an increase in oxygen concentration. The sensor can be easily attached to an oxygen blender into which one line supplies oxygen and the other supplies ambient air.
“We think that what we have is close to the final form of the device,” Suzuki said.
As the work proceeded, OxyCal frequently consulted with staff at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, the University of Malawi Polytechnic and the University of Malawi Medical School, in Blantyre, Malawi, all of which have a longstanding association with Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies. The staff used an earlier prototype of the device in the hospital, and assessed its usefulness.
“They let us know the practical things they expected of the device. They could answer our basic questions,” Verma said. “They let us know they don’t need a device that is 100 percent accurate, just a good close measure.,”
Last April, OxyCal was awarded $1,000 when it received the Excellence in Freshman Engineering Design Award at the 2016 George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase. In July the team was awarded a $5,000 stage-one grant from the nonprofit group VentureWell to develop their prototype and attend a workshop on how to market the product.
The team has been selected to present its device at the VentureWell Open 2017 conference in March in Washington, D.C. They hope eventually to visit Malawi and observe their device being used. The team’s faculty mentors are Ann Saterbak, teaching professor in bioengineering, and Matthew Wettergreen, lecturer.