Engineering undergrads create game-changing asthma management device

Helped by nurturing WUSTL entrepreneurship community

Engineering students Andrew Brimer and Abigail Cohen discuss their project, Sparo Labs, which recently won the $25,000 prize in the Washington University in St. Louis School of Engineering & Applied Science’s inaugural Discovery Competition. Sparo Labs results from an award-winning project to develop a low-cost, pocket-sized spirometer to measure lung function in patients with chronic respiratory diseases.

An estimated 300 million people in the world suffer from asthma. That number is expected to grow to more than 400 million by 2025. While diagnosis and treatment in the United States is accessible, people living in the developing world have a much more difficult time.

Thanks to a new product being developed by engineering students at Washington University in St. Louis, those millions of people may have new hope.

Andrew Brimer, senior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Abigail Cohen, senior majoring in biomedical engineering, have created a new portable and low-cost spirometer, which they hope will revolutionize the way asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases are diagnosed and treated.

Through creation of this device their company, Sparo Labs, can empower patients to connect with their doctors in tracking and managing asthma, cystic fibrosis, COPD and other diseases through seamless integration with mobile devices.

The team has spent more than a year and a half developing a spirometer that conquers issues of high cost and difficulty of use, drawing on the expertise and hard work of a number of fellow
students and advisors.

Most spirometers cost between $1,000 and $2,000, making them unaffordable to hospitals in the developing world. However, the Sparo Labs device will cost just $8. In addition to the low cost, the Sparo design does not require calibration, which has been a big hurdle to personal use of spirometers.

Sparo Labs is drawing quite a bit of attention, having won this year’s $30,000 Olin Cup top prize, the $25,000 top prize in the inaugural Discovery Competition sponsored by the School of Engineering & Applied Science and a $50,000 Arch Grant.

All told, including off-campus competitions, the team has earned more than $150,000.

Brimer and Cohen say they owe much of their success to the nurturing entrepreneurial spirit at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The university is doing a great job promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship on all levels, from the ‘back of a napkin ideas’ that can be pitched at an IdeaBounce, to the Olin Cup or Discovery Competition that help foster more developed or mature projects into real companies with serious funding,” Brimer says.

“Washington University’s focus on entrepreneurship has allowed us and other students the ability to get valuable feedback and funding to help turn ideas into viable companies with large potential for impact,” Cohen says.

The pair has received mentorship from the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the Hatchery entrepreneurship course at Olin Business School and from Mario Castro, MD, director of the Asthma and Airway Translational Research Unit at the School of Medicine.

“The culture of innovation and entrepreneurship continues to grow at Washington University,” says Ken Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center. “The innovation and entrepreneurship initiative is one of the pillars that guides the university’s vision. All students may participate in entrepreneurial coursework and co-curricular programs are open to both student and community entrepreneurs.”

“This is an exciting time for innovation and entrepreneurship at Washington University,” Harrington says. “We continue to see new cross-campus collaborations and relationships with the community that grow the culture and the support system for entrepreneurs.”