The fact that COVID-19 was spreading across China and around the world was known to Longsha Liu ’21.
He had been receiving regular updates from his mother about the spread of the virus in China, where most of his close family members live—including his 77-year old grandmother, who continued to practice as a physician.
Thus, when Liu, a biological sciences major, and his classmates attended a health care business plan competition, they were aware that their target should be COVID-19.
The main motivation for me was, if there was something that we could do to contribute to a solution, then I wanted us to do it.
Longsha Liu, CEO, Vita Innovations
“If we were going to come up with an idea,” stated teammate Jason Chen ’22, also a biological sciences major, “this would be the best problem to solve at the moment.”
Many team members knew each other from Cornell University Biomedical Device, a student group working on biomedical device innovation. Using their experience with biosensors, they proposed the winning concept at the seventh annual AI Health Hackathon, Feb. 7-9: a “smart” respiratory mask for preventing the spread of airborne diseases while tracking the vital signs of the wearer.
The hackathon was hosted by Weill Cornell Medicine’s Clinical & Translational Science Center in New York City and co-sponsored by Entrepreneurship at Cornell. It brought together research scientists, students, and innovators from Weill Cornell Medicine, the Ithaca campus, and Cornell Tech to enhance patient care by leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence. Two dozen teams including 140 students competed for prizes worth $7,500.
The VitalMask developed by the team is made of 3D-printed resin, with sensors positioned near the nose, mouth, and earlobes of the wearer to monitor heart rate, body temperature, respiratory rate, and blood oxygen levels.
“These vital signs are transferred in real time to a mobile or desktop app,” stated Kristin Ong ’21. “Not only does the mask help busy medical personnel prioritize patients, it also offers a washable, reusable alternative to standard disposable masks.”
Of the 60 mentors at the hackathon, many of them motivated the team to explore their concept against the backdrop of emergency room overcrowding, a worldwide problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
You’ve got cases in the U.S., in China and Italy, of patients going to the emergency room and spending many hours in the waiting room because they have been prioritized as non-emergency or noncritical care. There are hundreds of people waiting, and you don’t know who has the coronavirus or not.
Jason Chen, Biological Sciences, Cornell University
The team including Chen, Liu, Ong, Ray Wei ’21, and Allison Fleisher ’21 was awarded the grand prize of $2,000 and a $500 third-place win in a special category, sponsored by IBM, for coronavirus innovations.
With support from a few of the hackathon mentors, in April, Chen, Liu, Ong, and Wei launched a startup named Vita Innovations. Now, Julia Isakov ’21, Sarah Luo ’20, Daniel Stabile ’21, and Rishi Singhal ’21 are also part of the company.
Provisional patents for the mask have been filed through patent attorney Erik Huestis ’03, who is on Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s advisory council. In addition, they making the design more perfect and seeking manufacturing partners. “Our main goal is to hopefully enter the market within a year or two,” stated Chen, the chief technology officer of the company.
Mentors affiliated to Cornell, such as Felix Litvinsky, managing director of Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, part of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, have offered the researchers valuable insights on how to move forward, stated Ong ’21, the innovation director of the team. “That has been a major contributing factor to our success so far,” she added.
The aim of the team is to eventually develop a range of sensing devices with applications beyond the pandemic, in countries with limited access to health care infrastructure.
If you consider stroke patients, simply saving a few minutes for taking of vitals could be very significant. VitalMask can also be used for ambulances, and any sort of emergency situation in which you want to get vitals measured but don’t have the time to do so.
Longsha Liu, CEO, Vita Innovations