Q&A With Big Ideas Winner Emily Huynh, Fractal

Big Ideas spoke with Emily Huynh to learn about the inspiration behind her Big Idea, Fractal, and what she and her team are currently working on.

Providing Accessible Medical Care through Low-Cost Fracture Detection

By Emily Denny

Treating bone fractures in the developing world is increasingly difficult due to the lack of x-ray accessibility. Emily Huynh, a senior at UC Berkeley studying Bioengineering, thought: if bone fractures were diagnosed and treated properly in an affordable way, large populations of people could avoid the chronic pain, disability, and socioeconomic disadvantage that mistreated fractures cause. This past spring, Huynh and her team won third place in Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good category for a medical device that provides orthopedic care in underdeveloped countries and remote settings called Fractal.

Big Ideas spoke with Huynh to learn about the inspiration behind the idea, what she and her team are currently working on, and how Fractal can create a positive impact to communities in the developing world.

Q: How is Fractal a solution to the growing numbers of untreated and mistreated bone fractures in the developing world?
A: There is about one orthopedic surgeon for 700,000 people in Nigeria — that’s a long waiting room. Despite the fact that the number of mistreated fractures is growing in developing countries, the number of professionals trained to treat these fractures isn’t growing with it. If bone fractures are not treated properly issues like bone-shortening, chronic pain, infection, and in an extreme case amputation can occur.

Fractal allows a clinician — one who may not have five years of training in orthopedic residency, but are familiar with the medical environment to triage patients — to rapidly diagnose and treat patient’s fractures properly, and accelerate recovery. By providing developing countries with an inexpensive, accurate tool for diagnosing and monitoring of bone fractures, we will facilitate better orthopedic care and reduce the incidence of mistreatments, misdiagnoses, and the ensuing complications.

Q: How is Fractal’s technology different than traditional technologies used to diagnose bone fractures?
A: The most common technology is x-ray, but abroad this can be inaccessible because x-ray is expensive to buy and maintain. A common alternative to x-ray is portable ultrasound which is relatively cheap, but it is hard to read, especially for fractures. Fractal fills this gap: it’s inexpensive like ultrasound, but is quantifiable and easy to use.

Fractal leverages and automates existing solutions in order to detect bone fractures without the use of imaging. We are basing the technology off of a technique physicians used before x-ray and ultrasound was invented called auscultatory percussion. It’s the same idea as when a doctor places a stethoscope on your back and asks you to breathe in. We are applying that same kind of “apply an impulse and listen to what you hear” methodology to the leg. By sending controlled audio waves through the bone, Fractal records and analyzes the sounds physicians listen for during bone auscultation, eliminating the chances of misdiagnosis that may occur without the proper equipment.

Q: How can you ensure Fractal is trusted in remote communities?
A: For patients in remote areas of many developing countries, going to urban care centers where people can be treated properly, can sometimes take days of walking. So, traditionally people living in these remote areas depend on bonesetters to treat a fracture. We do not want to upend or disagree with these trusted bonesetters, but to facilitate their care. If we are able to gain the trust of local caretakers, I think that Fractal could become a very helpful tool in treating larger populations of people.

Q: Through a partnership with The Lemelson Foundation, Fractal and other Big Ideas applicants in the Hardware for Good category participated in environmental responsibility workshops. How do you hope to implement sustainability into Fractal’s prototype?
A: Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good category was really interesting because sustainability is something innovators don’t really think about because we are so focused on how our product is going to work, how we are going to market it and how we are going to sell it.

The body of Fractal is printed with PLA (polylactic acid) which can be melted down and recycled. We are also hoping to create a service where if a device is broken it can be sent back to us. Once we receive the broken device we can repurpose it for the parts that don’t work. This will extend the device’s end of life, ultimately allowing us to limit our waste.

Q: How has your own academic interests led to the development of Fractal?
A: When I came to Berkeley I structured my coursework around learning how to build medical devices. I learned about hardware, how to build it, how to write the code so it can communicate, and how to do hands-on prototyping. Justin Krogue is my partner for Fractal. He is a fifth year orthopedic resident at UC San Francisco (UCSF) who rotates at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). When Krogue came to me with this idea, I ran with it. I thought Fractal tied my Bioengineering degree and skills together in a way that addressed social concerns.

Q: How have mentors and medical industry experts contributed to the development of Fractal?
A: Mentorship is one of the most important things that comes from Big Ideas. I was connected with Jeffrey Lu who won Big Ideas a few years ago. He made a big difference to my proposal because he is still in the start-up phase himself and provided significant insight from his experience to identify areas of improvement for both the proposal and the device itself. He helped me envision how to create a device that can be successful and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.

Dr. Nirmal Ravi from eHealth Africa has experienced how developing countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, and India have an inadequate healthcare infrastructure due to a lack of personnel and high equipment and maintenance costs, making it difficult for all communities access appropriate care. He has helped us get a better understanding of how we should market to developing countries. A lot of people reach out to developing countries thinking they can’t help themselves. We wanted to ensure that we assimilate with these countries and work into their culture to try and help solve this problem.

Q: What is your vision for Fractal over the next few months and what do you look forward to the most as you continue with Fractal?
A: Right now we are trying to go to a couple conferences to gain exposure and see if anyone else in the academic community has opinions and advice on the Fractal. We also currently collecting data at UCSF and SFGH on more tibia and hip fractures and of course looking for funding. In the long term, we hope to partner with Muhimbili Orthopaedic Institute in Tanzania so we can send our devices to become a part of a global clinical trial.

As my team and I continue to take these next steps, I look forward to seeing how Fractal can help just one patient and enable them to live a normal life. I am excited to see how Fractal can positively impact a community.

Environmentally Responsible Inventing

In Fall 2018, with support from The Lemelson Foundation, the Big Ideas Contest introduced a pilot “Environmental Responsibility Program” which offered a curriculum on sustainable design approaches.

Big Ideas Integrates Sustainability into Its Competition

By Emily Denny

“Sustainability is something innovators don’t really think about because we are so focused on how our product is going to work, how we are going to market it, and how we are going to sell it,” said Emily Huynh, a senior studying biomedical engineering at UC Berkeley.

Last spring, Huynh won third place in the Big Ideas Contest’s Hardware for Good category for Fractal, a medical device that provides low-income countries a tool to diagnose and monitor bone fractures. Huynh said that one of the challenges when building the Fractal prototype was how best to incorporate environmental concerns.

In 2018, Big Ideas responded to Huynh’s knowledge gap by introducing a pilot Environmental Responsibility Program into the contest. Supported by The Lemelson Foundation, the program offers a curriculum on sustainable design approaches.

In August, Big Ideas hired an environmental design fellow to support the program, Mimi Kaplan, who is a master’s student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Kaplan recruited Jeremy Faludi, a Dartmouth College professor and expert in green design and engineering; and together, they have developed two Inventing Green workshops for Big Ideas contestants in the Hardware for Good category.

“Having studied sustainable development at Columbia University, I have relevant academic experience to support Jeremy in developing the workshop content in a way that was suited to the needs of the students,” said Kaplan. “After college, I worked with the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem, assisting and managing the logistics and coordination of conferences and workshops on agtech developments and water management in Israel and in California.”

Big Ideas teams in the Hardware for Good category attended the first environmental workshop in the fall semester and the second in the spring.

“The purpose of the first Inventing Green workshop was to introduce students to the concepts of environmental design and circular economy, which includes using locally sourced and environmentally responsible materials and making recyclable and modular products,” said Kaplan. “The purpose of the second workshop was to give students the tools to implement these concepts in their designs and training to help make them confident in doing so.”

Emily Huynh and her team at Fractal attended the Inventing Green workshops, and then restructured how their medical device was built. The Fractal team reported the workshops helped them understand that the production phase of a medical device has the highest impact on the environment. As a result, they decided to use PLA (polylactic acid), a plastic that can be melted down and recycled, to print the body of the medical device.

“Learning about the process of sustainable design led us to reconsider how our product is going to work, how are we going to market it and how are we going to sell it.” said Huynh. “We are also hoping to create a service in which, if a device is broken, it can be sent back to us. Once we receive the broken device, we can repurpose it for the parts that don’t work. This will extend the device’s end of life, ultimately allowing us to limit our waste,” said Huynh.

Similar to Fractal, team members from the Sonic Eyewear Project (SEP) also reported that the workshops helped them reconsider the production of their prototype. Darryl Diptee, founder of SEP, won second place in the Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good Category in 2019 for developing a technology that enables people who are blind or visually impaired to use echolocation to better navigate their surroundings.

“The sustainability workshops helped us introduce and infuse sustainable approaches into our product development,” said Diptee on the workshops. “As a result, we are implementing green sustainability into SEP by using renewable plastics. We are also working on a clip-on product that can be affixed to existing eyewear, eliminating the need to buy an additional pair.”

Kaplan noted student feedback on the challenges of integrating sustainable design into their inventions. “In a roundtable feedback session at the end of the contest year, multiple teams mentioned the difficulty of local sourcing, modularization, and ensuring circularity of their products if it meant justifying a higher up-front cost to investors,” she said. “The group discussed methods for overcoming this challenge, including how to pitch the long-term financial savings that sustainable design brings as well as the importance of environmental responsibility.”

Overall, Kaplan said the workshops increased contestants’ confidence in applying principles of sustainable design in their invention process, and that the workshops had an impact on participants’ perception of the design process cost, ease of manufacturing, marketability, and quality.

In the spring, Dr. Maria Artunduaga won Big Ideas’ first-place prize in the Hardware for Good category for Respira Labs, a startup for a medical device that tracks and monitors lung health, providing an early warning for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) attacks.

“It’s our social responsibility as innovators to be mindful. The sustainability workshops helped us at Respira Labs realize that you can build a prototype while also being mindful of the environment.” said Dr. Artunduaga.

Already aware that healthcare sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and generates an average of 25 pounds of waste per patient each day, the Respira Labs team saw the workshops as an opportunity to reconsider how its prototype can incorporate sustainable design. Respira Labs intends to use reusable sensors as well as tie the use of smartphones to the COPD technology, eliminating the need for excess medical devices.

In addition to learning how to reduce waste during the production process, teams in the Environmental Responsibility Program also reported learning that sustainable design can reduce legal risk, final product cost, and increase innovator creativity and motivation.

“This year, we plan to again offer a workshop on environmental responsibility in product design for student teams creating physical products,” said Kaplan. “We also plan to take Big Ideas students to maker spaces in the Bay Area, and to share through lectures and conferences what we have learned in implementing the Big Ideas environmental responsibility curriculum with the support of The Lemelson Foundation.”

Big Ideas Judge Jill Finlayson: Mentoring and Marveling at Founders

Big Ideas sat down with long-time judge and mentor Jill Finlayson to learn more about what makes her optimistic about the future of technology.

By Veena Narashiman

There are few people as committed to judging the Big Ideas Contest as Jill Finlayson. A lifelong advocate of mentorship and a graduate of UC Berkeley, Finlayson has been a Big Ideas mentor since the competition’s inception in 2006. She currently serves as director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Previously, Finlayson led mentorship and incubator and accelerator programs for Singularity University Ventures, ran the Toys category for eBay, managed a community of social entrepreneurs at the Skoll Foundation, and consulted for the World Bank, Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Her passions include social entrepreneurship, open government, civic tech, startups, education, innovation, women, mentoring, tech for good, impact, and leadership.

Big Ideas sat down with Finlayson to learn more about what makes her optimistic about the future of technology and what brings her to Big Ideas.

Your background is fairly diverse—from running eBay’s Toy category to consulting for the World Bank. How has working in different sectors informed your view on technology’s role in society?
The nice thing from working in so many avenues is that you get to see similarities between supposedly different sectors. It really increases your empathy and understanding at a systemic level. But it also gives you the advantage of a cross-sector lens to view potential collaborations. None of these efforts exist in a vacuum—to get working on issues with deeply entrenched root causes, you will work with governmental agencies as well as the private sector, large organizations, and startups. If you are able to take the metrics used in social enterprises and marry them with the design thinking and urgency used in tech startups, you’re at a huge advantage.

How do you see the landscape for women entrepreneurs today? Do you see a change in culture from when you first started out?
The biggest win has to be awareness. We have enough data for people to see and understand how harmful microaggressions can be. We have studies that show discriminatory practices toward female academics and Venture Capitalists asking biased questions toward female founders—this data makes it easier to help people understand the challenges and make needed behavior and system changes.. Though the technical workplace may still have significant attrition for women, we’re seeing better and more informed policies that promote equitable participation. The notion that people “have to be a guy” is decreasing. Companies are placing more value on stereotypically “soft skills”—things like communication, collaboration, and global mindset, and they are devoting more resources to fostering inclusive leadership which will lead to a more level playing field.

How important are female founder/role models to burgeoning entrepreneurs or engineers? What do you think people can get out of mentorship?
Mentorship is beneficial in a myriad of ways. We’re a great sounding board—it can be a bit lonely at the top, so having someone to bounce ideas off of is such an asset. Mentors offer valuable criticism, forcing you to either have a sound rationale or to pivot. It’s much easier to change course early before you invest a lot of time and money. Finally, we offer a network. Every day, I think about who I can connect my team with to inform their solution. We are your ultimate champions, and hopefully, our cumulative knowledge may help you bridge sectors.

All this to say that mentoring is also benefiting us! Mentors are able to feed off the dynamic energy of founders, while constantly learning from complicated startup challenges. It’s an opportunity for us to leverage hard-earned knowledge to help create concrete applications and to help founders achieve their potential and their vision. Founders have the same energy throughout the globe—you will feel at home in any startup space from in the world because they are filled with people trying to solve big problems. Anyone with the courage and excitement to build something from nothing is someone I want to work with.

What are the most important qualities of a successful founder?
You have to be in love with the problem—not the solution. A founder must pivot, and you cannot afford to be too attached to anything. Imagine what you think success would look like, what kind of metrics you would use to demonstrate impact for an ideal scenario. These questions can guide you to figure out what you would like to achieve.

The best teams have a shared vision and psychological security; you want to make sure that your team members are able to say something crazy without being penalized. This comes with avoiding micromanaging, having the belief that your team is qualified, and doing your best to support them and remove any barriers to their success. Diversity in backgrounds is important to avoid blindspots and foster innovation, but ensure that everyone shares the same exponential vision for the company.

Helming a newfound project is equally as exciting as chaotic. Be ready to learn and strive to engineer serendipity – put yourself in places where you might meet collaborators and discover best practices from other sectors. Figuring out how to marry what you learn in one sector to another one can be challenging, but it brings immense fulfillment and sustainable innovation.

Ultimately, you have to be ready to think BIG. You might do a pilot as a proof of concept, but you are not here to fix a little thing. Try to think systemically and don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions.

What is unique about the startup world? Do startups have the resources to challenge the status quo?
Startups are the only ones with the ability to attack systemic issues! Founders are the ones who want to disrupt the status quo and thus are uniquely incentivized to move fast. We desperately need people to keep asking the question of why. More often than not, our assumptions and the bounds of our problem statement are based on our own experiences. Without diverse creators and people constantly challenging assumptions, solutions will fail to serve everyone.