Student startup aims to save lives

Watchdog Medical, a startup formed by five Carolina biomedical engineering students, represented the University at the annual ACC InVenture Prize competition. The team has developed a device that could help save the lives of premature infants.

When a class assignment challenged five Carolina biomedical engineering students to find and solve a problem in health care, they chose to focus on premature infants suffering from necrotizing enterocolitis — a disease that damages intestinal tissue and poses a devastating 30 to 50 percent mortality rate.

Their solution came in the form of a medical device that could accurately monitor necrotizing enterocolitis symptoms to catch complications before it’s too late.

“It wasn’t that there are no treatments that exist,” said Megan Anderson, a Carolina senior. “There are treatments, both surgical and non-surgical, but we’re not getting patients to the treatments in time, which is particularly frustrating because we have the tools we need to save their lives but we can’t get the diagnosis we need.”

Taking that challenge head-on, the five students created a prototype for a device that simultaneously monitors four external symptoms of the disease using bio-sensors to accurately alert physicians whenever there is a significant chance of necrotizing enterocolitis.

With the mission of saving babies’ lives, the project evolved into something more than just a class assignment. It became one of Carolina’s most recent student startups, Watchdog Medical.

The students of Watchdog Medical will now represent the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the third annual ACC InVenture Prize on April 5 and 6, competing against the top student innovators from each university in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Held annually at Georgia Tech, the ACC InVenture Prize is an innovation competition where students from each university pitch their inventions to a panel of judges. The winning team receives $15,000.

Developing a solution

The concept for Watchdog developed as the team spent time at the UNC Hospitals’ Neonatal Intensive Care Unit researching the problems that kept newborns there the longest.

“We found this niche in health care that’s being completely overlooked,” said Anderson. “There’s a huge market for NICU monitoring in general, but nothing that specific and that’s where providers are left on their own.”

Sifting through multiple, generic symptoms and determining the possibility of necrotizing enterocolitis can be time-consuming. It can ultimately become a generalized guess. But since the onset can be as quick as overnight, the diagnosis must be fast enough to intervene with treatment.

Watchdog Medical’s prototype can help physicians by indicating the earliest signs of necrotizing enterocolitis.

“It watches out for these infants to make sure that they don’t fall victim to NEC,” said Dhruv Shankar, a senior and a member of Watchdog Medical. “What else does that? A watchdog.”

Idea to competition

By competing in this weekend’s ACC InVenture Prize competition, the team hopes to leave their mark on Carolina.

“Engineers don’t usually get a spotlight like this, so this is really exciting for us,” said Anderson. “We’ve worked so hard these last four years and it’s finally culminating to something bigger.”

The Watchdog Medical team is looking forward to the innovative environment that the competition will provide. Just preparing for the InVenture Prize has already benefited the young startup, they said.

“It has forced us to consider other perspectives outside of science,” said Shankar. “Engineering isn’t just a scientific venture; it incorporates business, it incorporates empathy and it incorporates really just understanding what do people want, why do they want something and how do you convince people you’ve got something worth selling.”

Regardless of the ACC InVenture Prize outcome, Watchdog Medical team members are passionate about continuing to improve their product so that one day it could help save lives.

“We’ve had several discussions as a team of how far are we going to take this,” Anderson said. “And we just can’t stop.”