Entrepreneurs Thinking Inside the Box


Hackathons usually involve thinking outside of the box. But for myself and four other MIT students, brainstorming, eating, and sleeping inside a 16-foot by 16-foot glass cube on campus for four days straight in mid-September proved just as effective at getting our creative juices flowing.

The experience was part of InCube 2018, a global startup pitch competition organized by the ETH Entrepreneurship Club. We met for the first time the week before, and we were competing against four other cubes in Switzerland to solve a challenge.

Being contained in the same small space encouraged us to stay productive around the clock. The glass walls drew the public into the process, fostering transparency and interactive engagement. At first it felt odd being treated like a zoo animal on display, but I quickly got used to being stared at. By the end of the competition, the cube felt like a tiny contemporary office.

Photo credit: Joseph Lee

Our sponsor, Stryker, challenged us to reimagine ambulances for the future. This seemed intimidating at first, as we had limited experience with ambulances. However, I was surprised by how open people were to helping us.

Paramedics, nurses, medical directors, patients, and EMTs eagerly took time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their personal experiences in ambulances. We had a broad range of interviewees (40+ individuals) to ensure they represented the industry. They were the biggest contributors to our project. Conducting the interviews, I learned that combining an open mind with diverse perspectives is an extremely effective way to tackle a problem.

The most challenging part of InCube 2018 was making sure that we curated a design that addressed the differing needs of the ambulance stakeholders, while avoiding bias. Ultimately, improving patient outcomes and potentially saving lives was in the best interest of everyone involved. To do this, we designed a solution that could help paramedics more accurately identify patients who are in a critical condition.

Due to the large amount of information paramedics have to process in high-stress situations, preventable deaths may occur because a patient’s condition was not correctly evaluated in an ambulance. For example, imagine a team of paramedics who have a Friday night shift. They may transport to the hospital several patients in a row who have consumed too much alcohol. All of these patients may exhibit slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and vomiting. Now, let’s say there is a patient who also exhibits the symptoms, but is having a stroke. The paramedics may assume that the patient has also consumed too much alcohol—due to the similar symptoms and timing—potentially resulting in the patient not getting urgent care until it is too late.

How might we help paramedics understand patient conditions quickly so that they can make more informed decisions?

Our idea is the creation of AugMedic, an integrated sensing system that simplifies vital sign monitoring. There are five vital signs that can indicate if a patient is in a critical condition—heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and temperature. The vital signs and visible symptoms can give major clues about the cause of a patient’s condition.

AugMedic places vital sign sensors on stretchers, so they are easily accessible, and displays the vitals on a portable tablet. Paramedics can then digest all the data at once. AugMedic also has an interactive interface on the tablet, in which paramedics can input qualitative patient information. The interface can then make recommended actions for the paramedics based on existing protocols. Finally, the system compiles the information entered by the paramedics and the vital sign data to help generate reports automatically, which helps paramedics transition from call to call more quickly.

AugMedic was the final outcome of countless ideas that evolved based on the feedback we received from domain experts. It was amazing seeing how each one of our team members contributed in different and significant ways, and watching our design evolve over time. With each iteration, we learned that you can’t take away the human factor of medical care. There was a point in which our solution was completely based on artificial intelligence, but in the end, we decided that it was better to augment paramedics, rather than replace them.

We have secured intellectual property rights on our design, and we are considering continuing the project. We are extremely proud of our solution and business plan, and are excited to see how they will evolve in the future. We are open to partnerships.

In the meantime, we are getting on with our studies at MIT.

For my teammates and me, the InCube competition was an opportunity to work under pressure, in multidisciplinary teams, while solving problems in a new field. Going through the early entrepreneurial process—from problem finding to ideation and from prototyping to pitching—was extremely rewarding, and it sparked a new passion and confidence in pursuing entrepreneurship.

Photo credit: Kelsey Gripenstraw

Erica Yuen is a graduate student studying computer science, with a focus on human-computer interaction, at MIT. Follow @

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