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If a new invention falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?

When Eric Miller and Isaac Swink attended VentureWell’s E-Team Program workshop this summer, they got an introductory lesson on how to make sure their invention is one that will make a sound that people will hear.

Miller, a current biomedical engineering (BME) master’s student, and Swink, a 2017 BME master’s graduate, were part of a nine-person team formed in Professor Jim Antaki’s spring Biomedical Engineering Design course. Together, the team developed S.A.F.E., the Smart Automatic Foot Exam, to help prevent diabetic foot ulcers and the complications that can arise as a result. 

S.A.F.E. was one of 50 innovative designs nationwide to receive the E-Team Program’s Stage 1 grant. With this award, teams received $5,000 in funding and had the chance to attend a three-day workshop in Boston on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The points they were stressing (at the workshop) were you can have a great idea, you know, it’s fascinating, amazing technology…but if you don’t have a plan in place in terms of managing potential intellectual property complications, managing the supply chain, how are you going to distribute what you’re making?” Miller said.

VentureWell—a Massachusetts-based non-profit—established the E-Team (Entrepreneur-Team) Program to provide funding, workshops, and coaching to STEM students working on innovative projects. The E-Team Program ultimately aims to assist in moving these inventions from workbench to marketplace.

There was a lot of talking about whether [our] product really hit the desire…not a need.

Isaac Swink, Alumnus, Biomedical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

According to Miller, the workshop was hyper-focused on the business side of invention.

“The first day we were there we did a brief, I think it was 90 seconds, ‘here’s what we made, here’s why it’s cool or interesting or useful,’” he said.

After that, it was all about getting what they made ready for market.

A major area of focus for Miller and Swink, and the 49 other teams in attendance, was on competitive analysis—determining how their S.A.F.E. device measured up against similar products already on the market.

In conducting these analyses, Miller said he and Swink realized that similar devices currently being sold aren’t effectively addressing the problem of diabetic foot ulcers. According to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine, somewhere between 19 and 34 percent of people with diabetes will likely be affected by foot ulcers at some point in their lives.

The E-Team Program showed Miller and Swink that, even though there might be a need for their product, they are responsible for determining if there is want.

“There was a lot of talking about whether (our) product really hit the desire…not a need,” Swink said. “Our product was something that there’s a big need for, but you have to really talk about desires. They (the E-Team Program leaders) really pushed you to talk to people and interview people that might be users for your product.”

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One of the biggest lessons Swink took away from the workshop was what he described as “personal patentability” and how careful any entrepreneur needs to be when patenting an invention.

It requires looking at what patents already exist and “who might come after you as soon as you step on their toes,” Swink said. “But, at the same time…if these big companies start coming after you, then you know that you’re really disrupting their market.”

Following Stage 1, teams can apply to the E-Team Program’s Stage 2. If one of the 20 teams accepted, they receive $20,000 in additional funding, as well as the chance to work with VentureWell leaders over a three-month period to develop and solidify their business models.

Stage 2 is followed by Aspire. The 10 teams accepted to Aspire receive mentoring from VentureWell to begin developing appeals to partners and investors interested in providing further funding for the projects.

Since he graduated at the end of last school year, Swink will not be part of future endeavors with S.A.F.E. Miller, on the other hand, is still engaged and beginning to work toward applying to Stage 2.

In addition to Swink, a number students from last year’s team have graduated from Carnegie Mellon and are in pursuit of further degrees or career opportunities, Miller said.

“So we’re trying to…regroup and find some other people that are interested in keeping this going,” Miller said. “Because I think it’s worth it.”