Siddharth Krishnan, Materials Science and Engineering PhD ‘19 graduate and the Illinois Innovation Prize (IIP) 2019 winner, has developed a noninvasive, wearable shunt failure monitor for patients with hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus affects approximately one million Americans in every stage of life and is the most common reason for brain surgeries in children. The estimated medical costs for hydrocephalus are over $2 billion per year.
In 2018, Siddharth co-founded Rhaeos Inc. to commercialize the shunt failure monitors. The shunt failure monitor has the potential to bring down the costs associated with expensive, inaccurate, and painful diagnostic testing. Currently, Siddharth is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anderson/Langer Lab at MIT. We caught up with him to find out more about how winning IIP helped his innovation, his advice to student innovators, industries to focus on for innovation, and how to overcome challenges when commercializing innovation.
What is the latest with Rhaeos?
Rhaeos is doing very well! The company has raised some funds through grants and business plan competitions, allowing us to put together a fantastic, experienced team that is pushing forward to achieve regulatory and clinical milestones.
How did you hear about IIP? What motivated you to apply?
I have known about the Illinois Innovation Prize for so long, I honestly don’t remember! I was a PhD student in the department of Materials Science and Engineering (MatSE), and as you entered the building, there were several posters of former MatSE IIP winners. I must have seen those posters within a day or two of arriving at Illinois, over five years ago. My mentor in my PhD group applied during my first year of PhD, and progressed fairly far in the program, so I remember thinking how great would it be to apply someday.
Would you recommend IIP to students on campus, and why?
Absolutely! The process was richly rewarding, from thinking through the questions on the application to meeting the judges, and most of all, meeting the other finalists and learning about their projects. Also, any innovation is tough-it is challenging work so the financial support in the form of the IIP award is a fantastic boost.
What is your advice to student innovators?
Resilience and patience are very important, as is finding a great team and a set of collaborators to fill unmet needs to make the project(s) successful. I’m from a science/engineering background, so I also think that really good preliminary data is important to prove out a concept, before going too far into commercialization.
How did the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Illinois benefit you?
When I was a PhD student, my advisor, Prof. John Rogers was named a Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellow (FEF). This led to two spinout companies from the group, that, while I was not directly involved with, I saw it up close. It was very impactful because for the first time I could see all the moving parts that went into translating an invention from an academic lab to a commercial product, including product development, fundraising through federal small business programs, understanding IP, and more.
How did you choose to focus on hydrocephalus? Tell us your story?
Honestly, as a MatSE PhD student, I knew very little about hydrocephalus. Early on, around mid-2015, my research focused on developing wearable sensors to map out heat through skin, and it turned out that this was a really good way to measure flow through blood vessels that were near the skin surface. We didn’t really have an application in mind- it was mostly done in the context of open-ended academic research. However, our work caught the attention of folks at the Neurological Surgery Department at Northwestern University, and they identified treating and diagnosing shunt malfunction in hydrocephalic patients as a major pain point in their practice. They highlighted the fact that shunts were similar to blood vessels in size, shape, flow rate and other key factors, and developing a noninvasive flow sensor for ventriculoperitoneal shunts would be hugely useful for them.
I spent the next three years developing the sensor, validating aspects of the thermal physics, constructing a benchtop model, and eventually transitioned it to an IRB-approved (Institutional Review Board) patient study at Northwestern, led by our collaborators there. Over this time, I met several patients and their caregivers and I saw firsthand how challenging it is living with a shunt. It’s a huge motivator for our entire team to do whatever we can to help these patients and their families.
What challenges did you face when developing the wearable shunt monitor? What doubts came to your mind? How did you overcome those doubts?
I think the biggest challenge was translating the technology from the laboratory to a pilot human study. At a basic level, we were confident that the underlying operational principles were sound based on extensive bench testing and numerical modeling. Moving it to a hospital, particularly the emergency department of a neurosurgery ward, presented a set of challenges that are virtually impossible to simulate in the lab. We dealt with device breakages, sudden patient movements, and a range of human factors/usability type issues. Fortunately, the resident in neurosurgery I was working with, Dr. Amit Ayer (also a Rhaeos co-founder), is absolutely fantastic and we were in constant communication to make weekly, sometimes daily improvements to the device. On our first patient study, we wheeled in a cart full of electronics and data acquisition systems to support the sensor. Over a two-year development period that evolved into a band-aid sized sensor and a smartphone. This process was both very challenging and gratifying.
What does the future look like for ‘soft skin-like electronics’ wireless wearables?
The last decade or so has seen amazing growth in the materials science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering approaches available to the field. It has engaged researchers from several disciplines across the world, and a lot of these technologies are becoming commercially mature. I think we will see many softer, flexible sensor systems hit the market in the next few years. As that happens, the volume of physiological patient data will probably expand exponentially, and it will be very interesting to look out for some of the algorithm and software level developments that will help create meaningful, actionable insights for physicians based on these data streams.
What industry is seeing rapid technology innovation commercialization? Would you recommend any industry or industries for student innovators to focus on?
As I mentioned earlier, data analytics, including aspects of machine learning will probably become key fields, and to a large extent, they already are. But I’m a hardware person, and I think that building physical devices or materials with clinical potential will only grow in importance. Overall, I feel that working on technologies with some sort of societal benefit is a good way to go.
What is next for Rhaeos? What is next for you?
Rhaeos is lucky to have a team with significant product development and regulatory experience and is focused on getting FDA clearance by late next year. I hope to continue a career in biomedical research, ideally by leading a group of graduate students and postdocs at a university.
Who are your role models?
That’s easy- John Rogers! (From 2003-2016, Prof. John Rogers was on the faculty at University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, where he held a Swanlund Chair, the highest chaired position at the university, with a primary appointment in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and joint appointments in the Departments of Chemistry, Bioengineering, Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. In 2016 he joined the Northwestern University)