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Circling the Dome

Making the Pitch

physician playing flute

Illustration by Sophie Casson

There’s a nervous energy in the Armstrong Medical Education Building on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. It’s pitch day for a fall elective course run by Medical and Educational Perspectives (MEP), a nonprofit organization started at Johns Hopkins that provides training and support for the development, evaluation and commercialization of low-cost medical devices. Eight teams of medical, public health, biomedical engineering, nursing, and other graduate and undergraduate students have gathered to present.

Biomedical engineering student Bofeng Zhang starts his pitch for LiveFreely, a wristband device that detects falls among the elderly and automatically texts or calls an emergency contact. The idea came to him after his grandfather fell in the shower and was not discovered for several hours. When the team finishes, a panel of nine judges, including CEOs, managing directors for regional health care or consulting firms, and Johns Hopkins University representatives, offers constructive criticism. They liked the anecdote about Zhang’s grandfather but said it took too long. “You asked for $350,000, but I would like to know how you’re going to use the money,” another opined. A third judge felt the team needed someone skilled in marketing to get the device off the ground.

It’s a little bit Shark Tank, a little bit dissertation review, says MEP founder Carmen Kut, an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate working on a medical imaging device to better allow neurosurgeons to visualize brain tumors during cancer removal surgeries. Some teams are just starting with ideas they’re looking to turn into a product, while others have prototypes and are seeking marketing advice. The course is just one offering from MEP, which every summer takes students to visit 10 to 12 hospitals and companies in India for feedback on their inventions.

One of MEP’s successes is the Cooling Cure, a basket costing $40 that lowers the body temperature of newborns deprived of oxygen before birth to help prevent brain injuries. In 2013, Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering students working on the project patented their device and received modest financial support to advance the design. They’re now in an education phase, developing a website that teaches caregivers about brain damage from oxygen loss and describes how to build one of the units, says Johns Hopkins University alumnus John Kim, now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The quality of innovation and the focus on really important problems is the difference between what you see at Hopkins and toy projects or capstone projects from other places,” says Elliott McVeigh, director of biomedical engineering at The Johns Hopkins University, who sits on MEP’s board of directors and judges the presentations. “They are really solving critical unmet needs.”