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Savannah Rhodes and Wyatt Hursh
Savannah Rhodes and Wyatt Hursh are using their knowledge from the biomedical engineering Master of Engineering program to translate an idea into a marketable device. The students will conduct at least 100 interviews with potential customers to validate the marketability of the device. | Image: Courtesy of Savannah Rhodes and Wyatt Hursh

Two students from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University have received a highly competitive National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) grant. Savannah Rhodes and Wyatt Hursh were awarded the $50,000 grant to investigate the marketability of their device, which measures health biomarkers in livestock.

Rhodes is a 2022 graduate of the Master of Engineering program in the department. Hursh is a dual degree student who graduated with a Master of Business Administration in 2022 and will graduate with a Master of Engineering degree in biomedical engineering in 2023. Both individuals serve as co-entrepreneurial leads for their medical device startup, SageSensors. In this role, they will lead the effort to validate market potential.

“We’re very thankful that we received this grant,” Hursh said. “The research we’ll conduct with this funding is vital to our success as an agricultural device startup.”

The students will use the grant to conduct interviews to determine if their device will have a demand when it enters the market. They’ll do this by meeting with at least 100 potential customers, experts, ecosystem companies and other stakeholders in the animal agriculture industry who could potentially be users of the device.

“We’ll interview everyone who could have their hands on this device,” Rhodes said. “This includes producers, veterinarians, consultants, cowboys, industry suppliers and animal pharmaceutical companies.”

Measuring livestock health biomarkers

SageSensors’ device can be used to measure health biomarkers such as blood oxygen content, glucose, lactate and temperature based on a technology developed in Biosensing Systems and Materials Lab (BioSym) under the supervision of department head and James J. Cain Professor II Dr. Mike Mcshane. The device is about the size of a grain of rice and is implanted beneath the animal’s hide. John Hanks, one of the team’s mentors and a co-director of the Master of Engineering program, explained that the long-term goal of the project is to reduce food-animal morbidity and mortality.

“Today, the standard method of identifying sick animals is visual inspection,” Hanks said. “Because this method has a high rate of error, many sick animals go unidentified. This leads to a mortality rate as high as 10% in certain livestock industries. Using our device, producers and veterinarians can receive an early warning when an animal is sick.”

After the device is implanted, animal handlers can wirelessly collect the stored data with a handheld wand that can communicate with the implanted sensor up to 12 centimeters away from the animal. This data can be stored in the cloud and aggregated over time to determine the long-term health of the individual animal and the herd.

“Once our market study is complete, we plan to implement the device in the animal agriculture industry to improve animal health,” Rhodes said. “By improving a herd’s morbidity and mortality rate, we can save producers a significant amount of money.”

Funding market research

The funding for the grant comes from the NSF I-Corps program, an entrepreneurial training program with the goal of bringing cutting-edge technologies to market. Texas A&M serves as a founding partner of the Southwest I-Corps Hub. Under the leadership of Magda Lagoudas, executive director of industry and nonprofit partnerships for the College of Engineering, the hub identifies and trains entrepreneurial students and faculty at Texas A&M before they are eligible to apply to the national-level I-Corps program.

“The Texas A&M I-Corps site program is designed to offer students an opportunity to gain an understanding that innovations can translate to successful products or services,” Lagoudas said. “This can only happen when they address an actual need in the market and in a way that is much better than existing solutions.”

Before applying for the national program, Rhodes and Hursh completed the Southwest I-Corps Hub training program, where they conducted a local market study to validate the market demand for their device.

“As part of the I-Corps program at Texas A&M, students conduct 30 customer-related interviews to determine market demand,” Hanks said. “This teaches engineering students and faculty to think about both the functionality and potential market when designing a product. Having a commercial opportunity like this is one of the best ways for students to learn. When it becomes real, students really begin to learn.”

As recipients of the NSF I-Corps grant, Rhodes and Hursh will complete a nationwide market analysis by conducting more than 100 interviews with industry stakeholders around the country. According to Dr. Amir Tofighi Zavareh, who serves as a research assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department and a mentor of Rhodes and Hursh, this process develops an entrepreneurial spirit in students.

“I never thought I would get into entrepreneurship or an academic career,” Zavareh said. “It all started with I-Corps.”

Zavareh, who received his doctoral degree from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M, completed the I-Corps program during his graduate degree. In the last five years, Zavareh has co-founded four startup companies. He credits the I-Corps program for helping him start his entrepreneurial dream.

“I-Corps was a life-changing experience,” Zavareh said. “It taught me a different perspective on research and industry needs. It’s truly a bridge from fundamental research to translational research.”

This industry-focused approach makes the biomedical engineering department at Texas A&M unique. Through the industry-focused Master of Engineering program, mentorship from industry professionals and training programs such as I-Corps, the department prepares students to serve industry needs through entrepreneurial developments.

“The biomedical engineering department at Texas A&M is changing the medical device industry through student-driven entrepreneurship,” Hanks said. “By working with faculty mentors, students leave our department with the determination, knowledge and connections to be successful biomedical entrepreneurs.”