On April 13, 2019, I did something I never thought I would ever do: I got up on a stage to pitch a concept that I believe will have an impact on health care, and I won $10,000 to bring my idea to life.

Early in the year, I was looking for a research group to join, and I came across Professor Kenneth Wilund’s kinesiology lab during this search. He studies and works with kidney dialysis patients. His group seemed like a good fit for me as a medical student, so I joined in on meetings and journal clubs to get acquainted with the research.

I got to talking with Gwendolyn Derk, one of Professor Wilund’s M.D., Ph.D. students, early on in my time in the lab. During this conversation, Gwendolyn revealed to me an idea to use a toilet to automate urine volume collections, a vital component in informing renal patient care. We dove into this idea but decided to take it one step further: Because urine contains a breadth of biomarkers that can tell us a lot about many disease states – not just for renal patients – why not look at all of the elements in the urine with this collection system? Thus, our conversation turned into a full-blown idea.

The Smart Toilet idea is important to me because this device will allow doctors to get vital data, in the form of 24-hour urine collections, much more often than is currently done. Right now, doctors don’t order this test as much as they should, simply because it is a hassle for patients to do what is required for the test: collecting all of their urine in a bucket for the 24-hour period and bringing it back to the lab. With the Smart Toilet installed in hospitals and clinics, as well as the homes of patients who need the test often, the urine would not have to be transported, and the data would be available much more readily. Automating this test becomes easier for patients and will give physicians more information to help patients better manage their disease. The uses of the device could only increase from there. The Carle Illinois College of Medicine has taught me to think about how technology can enhance patient care, and the Smart Toilet fits right in with that vision.

Gwendolyn and I entered our idea in the Health Make-A-Thon, an event hosted by Carle Illinois. It was open to not only university-affiliated students and faculty, but also the general public of Champaign County. Teams submitted an idea to improve health care for the chance to win $10,000 and a breadth of resources to turn their idea into a reality. We submitted a short video explaining our idea and how it could better human health. We were then selected as one of the 20 finalists to present at the Health Make-A-Thon. 

At the event, I got to listen to 19 other teams present their ideas to a panel of judges. Everyone’s ideas were so unique, ranging from medical devices to therapy horses for children who have undergone trauma. I’m inspired at how innovative this community is. Gwendolyn was out of town that day, so I had to present alone while she video-conferenced into the event. I was nervous at first at presenting in front of a crowd so large, but it ended up being so exciting and really fun. The pitch was two minutes and the Q&A from a panel of judges was a few minutes following, and Gwendolyn and I tackled their questions together.

Winning this competition has offered me opportunities and experiences that I would never have otherwise received. We’ve had the chance to engage in an iCorps program through the NSF, learning about entrepreneurial and business design side of creating a device. This was something I never thought I would be interested in or would need to know about, but it’s broadened my way of thinking about products and design. Additionally, I have become even more grateful I chose to come to Carle Illinois because of all of the engineering knowledge and assistance I have access to. Gwendolyn and I both have little background in both the business and mechanical engineering knowledge that we’ll need to pull this off, so with the help of the resources we’ve been given, we are learning a lot as we go. I’m grateful for the chance to explore this idea and innovate early on in my medical career, and I’m really excited to see where this leads.

August 13, 2019