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Samuel Fox Wins 2017 Duke BME Prize for Patient Mobility Design

Rising senior Samuel Fox wins competitive entrepreneurial prize for his device to improve patient mobility.

Samuel Fox, a student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Duke University, received the competitive 2017 Duke BME Prize, an award provided through the Duke Startup Challenge, for his entrepreneural work with his company, Zephyr Mobility. The prize, which provides $5,000 in funding to pursue an entrepreneurial project, is meant to encourage students to use biomedical engineering to pursue entrepreneurship as a career path. 

Fox, a rising senior in BME, started Zephyr Mobility with the goal of creating a device that would make it easier for patients  to move in and out of their bed in the hospital.

“Zephyr Mobility aims to solve a real need in the marketplace,” says Howie Rhee, the managing director at the Fuqua School of Business’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which sponsors the Duke Startup Challenge with Duke's Fuqua School of Business. “Right now, moving patients is a large pain point for providers, and Zephyr has a chance to improve that situation.”

The idea for Zephyr Mobility came to Fox while he was speaking with BME Professor Kevin Caves about his class, “Devices for People with Disabilities”. Through this discussion, Fox was introduced to an occupational health therapist who told him that safely moving patients in and out of bed was a major issue for health care workers, as the current devices are slow and often require more than one caretaker to use. When patients can’t get in and out of bed, they are more likely to develop other medical problems like pneumonia or pressure ulcers, and they can feel isolated and develop depression.

Upon hearing this, Fox got to work creating a device that would safely and effectively address the problem.

“My BME advisor, Professor Robert Malkin, was the first person I went to for advice about the project, and he helped me plan an ambitious development strategy,” says Fox. “He continually encouraged me that I was moving in the right direction.”

Unlike the current devices in the market which hoist the patients in the air, Fox’s device scoops an air cushion beneath the patient’s body, and then they slide laterally from the bed to the wheelchair. According to Fox, this method is not only more comfortable for the patient, but it is also less likely to malfunction and it doesn’t put the caregivers under a physical strain to lift the patient.

Samuel Fox poses with fellow BME student Venezia Leone, who will help Fox improve the prototype of the design over the summer.

Fox learned about the Duke BME Prize through the Duke Startup Challenge, an annual competition run by the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. As the winner, Fox will receive funding to continue his work by turning the proof-of-concept prototype into a full-scale, field-testable device. To accomplish this reality, Fox enlisted the help of Venezia Leone, a rising sophomore in BME, as a part-time engineering intern to help him conduct field tests with the prototype and raise additional funding throughout the summer. 

BME faculty are optimistic that Fox’s success and incentives like the Duke BME Prize will encourage more students to start their own companies during their time at Duke. “In Duke BME, we provide our students with the skills they would need to start their own companies,” says Ashutosh Chilkoti, chair of the BME department. “We have a lot of faculty members who have successfully started their own entrepreneurial projects, and we encourage and guide our students to pursue ideas and solutions they are passionate about.”

“This experience has made me realize how important it is to seek out problems that you think really matter,” says Fox.  “I encourage other students to experiment with their ideas as early as possible and get advice from anyone you can, because everyone in BME wants to help curious, energetic students succeed.”