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The Undergraduate Entrepreneur

Samuel Fox's student-project-turned-startup improves patient mobility

Not many students can say they formed a successful company before earning their undergraduate degree. But Samuel Fox, a biomedical engineering student at Duke University, did just that when he founded Zephyr Mobility before his senior year of college. 

Fox was a junior at Duke when he was introduced to BME professor Kevin Caves. At the time, Fox was hoping to design a tool that would make it easier for people in wheelchairs to shower, and he thought that Caves, who taught the “Devices for People with Disabilities” design course at Duke, would offer him valuable feedback. They discussed the idea before Caves put Fox in touch with Laura Juel, an occupational therapist at Lenox Baker Hospital, to give him a better idea about the needs of patients and caretakers. 

Through their discussion, Fox learned that safely moving patients in and out of bed was a major issue for healthcare workers, as the current mobility devices are slow and often require two or more caretakers to use. 

Their discussion gave Fox an idea—what if he could create a tool that could safely move patients out of bed and place them into a wheelchair, all without putting the caretakers under physical strain? Fox quickly changed his initial wheelchair design, opting instead to create a device that would safely and effectively solve this problem. To further pursue his idea, Fox formed Zephyr Mobility, drawing on the expertise of BME faculty to aid him in his efforts. 

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

Unlike current devices on the market which hoist patients into the air, Fox designed a device that scoops an air cushion beneath the patient’s body, which then slides them laterally from the bed to the wheelchair. According to Fox, this method is not only more comfortable for the patient, but also less likely to malfunction—and it doesn’t physically strain the caregivers.

After building his proof-of-concept design in the Foundry—an interdisciplinary student workspace sponsored by the Pratt School of Engineering—Fox entered the Duke Startup Challenge and received the 2017 Duke BME Prize offered through the competition. The prize provided Fox with $5,000 to turn his prototype into a field-testable device.

Fox also began to collaborate with Bill Walker, Duke Engineering’s first Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurial Ventures. “Bill had a transformative impact on the project, bringing his huge wealth of knowledge and network to help me,” says Fox. “He’s meeting with me as often as I need it to give me lots of advice on every topic.”

With Walker’s help, Fox has pitched his company to potential investors at the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Demo Day event in Connecticut, where he raised nearly $30,000 in funding. He also pitched his design at an Innovation Jam at the Duke University Medical Center, and is currently nearing an agreement for a collaboration with Duke Health, which would give him access to facilities and nurses to field-test his product. 

While Fox recognizes that starting a company is challenging, he is thankful for the support undergraduate students have to pursue entrepreneurship. “The big barrier in healthcare startups is getting access to the system and communicating with clinicians,” says Fox. “Duke has really made it easy to do that by encouraging connections between engineering and medicine. 

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