For more than 60 years, the West has found inspiration in the Chinese symbol for crisis. Conventional wisdom avows that the word’s Mandarin translation consists of two characters—one symbolizing danger and the other representing opportunity. Consequently, generations of business pundits and therapists have used this particular interpretation to impart crisis management advice upon the masses, asserting opportunity and personal/professional growth are best achieved during times of trouble.
While an admirable philosophy, such counsel is based almost entirely on myth. Linguistics note the Chinese symbol for crisis is not partly rooted on the word for “opportunity” but rather on the more abstract concept of “incipient moment” or “crucial point.”
“The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages,” Victor H. Mair, a Chinese language and literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in a blog. “Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is composed of elements meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit...”
Maybe so, but the underlying wisdom is nevertheless hard to ignore. Crises are indeed rife with opportunities, despite their unconventional (and oftentimes difficult) path to improvement or change.
Shawn Swanson evidently is a graduate of this school of thought. He and a half-dozen other University of Washington (UW) students discovered their golden opportunity during last summer’s brouhaha over a whopping 509 percent spike in EpiPen costs. The price hike spawned heated Congressional hearings, corporate mea culpas, and promises of cheaper alternatives, but no viable long-term solutions.
None, at least, as promising as the UW resolution. Swanson and his fellow students invented an affordable EpiPen substitute through the university’s Engineering Innovation in Health (EIH) program, a 4-year-old initiative that enables engineering students, faculty, and clinicians to partner and develop more economical alternatives to current healthcare needs. EIH teaches students strategies for advancing their creations through initial stages of design and prototyping to generate patents, data for publications and grant applications, and ultimately, to introduce their innovations to market.
Projects are managed within a year-long design course. UW clinicians submit one-page applications describing their greatest needs, and explain the difficulty in solving the problem. Students work on 10-15 projects at the start of the course (from an available pool of 50 clinician requests) and then narrow that number down to six or eight with the greatest potential for solutions.
“We started EIH in 2013 because we saw the disconnect between engineers and clinicians as directly impacting healthcare costs and innovations,” mechanical engineering (ME) professor and chair Per Reinhall recently told the university’s news service. Reinhall worked closely with ME associate professor Jonathan Posner and members of the ME’s external advisory board to develop the program.
“We all agreed that this was an opportunity for a change in the culture,” Posner added. “EIH’s goal is to prepare the next generation of students and faculty in medical device development and innovation while establishing a multidisciplinary culture of engineers and health practitioners.”
EIH has sired a number of impressive inventions in its first few years of existence, most notably the EpiPen alternative (aptly dubbed EpiForAll), one of the top inventions hatched from last year’s program. Touted as the first ampule-based reusable auto injector, the device is intended to be sold empty and loaded with epinephrine ampules by a pharmacist. EIH students worked with an allergy expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital on the device design to create a pen that would cost about $2 to manufacture. A glass ampule of the drug costs a mere 50 cents.
“It’s very enriching work, very stimulating,” Posner opined to The Seattle Times in July. “If you can deliver better care for less money, you can potentially have a winner.”
EpiForAll placed first in the UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge this year and fourth in the Center’s Business Plan Competition, according to the university. The team is working with UW’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic to form a company and has filed for a utility patent.
Other promising innovations beget by EIH include:
PlayGait, a non-electronic exoskeleton designed to help children with gait disorders learn to walk. Armed with $95,000 in grant funding to support research and development, the team has filed a provisional patent and is currently preparing to test the device on patients before initiating a controlled product release next year.
Quinton PHSH (Parastomal Hernia Support Harness), a support harness for gastrointestinal stoma surgery patients that builds upon the work of UW bioengineering pioneer and ME alumnus Wayne Quinton. Built both for comfort and stability, the invention’s creators have filed for a provisional patent and are organizing a clinical study through UW Medicine.
ACBI (Automated Continuous Bladder Irrigation), a system to keep the bladder free of blood clots. The team’s device—still in the prototype stage—automates the process of managing saline flow, assessing blood levels, and alerting nurses of irregularities.
MistEase, a handheld gadget to help elderly patients self-administer eye drops more easily. The product has been approved for clinical study and is being tested with patients.