Get to Know: HOPES – 2021 Singapore Winner of the James Dyson Award
A chat with Ye Kelu, Co-inventor of HOPES, a wearable biomedical device for pain-free, low-cost at-home intraocular pressure testing10 September 2021
The James Dyson Award is an annual international design competition, aimed at encouraging aspiring engineers and inventors to apply their knowledge and discover new ways to solve problems, improve lives through technology and change the world. Since 2005, James Dyson has contributed over S$186m to boundary-breaking concepts in education and other charitable causes. The competition has also supported nearly 250 inventions with prize monies.
The James Dyson Award has been running in Singapore since 2006. Each year, a top entry emerges to take the title of National Winner. We speak to one of the co-inventors of HOPES – the 2021 National Winner of the James Dyson Award – to learn more about them, the story behind their invention, as well as their future plans.
What does being a design engineer means to you?
A design engineer bridges the gap between design and traditional engineering. By drawing on knowledge across various disciplines, design engineers need to go through the whole process from idea development, design, and prototyping, to eventually present their solutions as a product to the market.
What is it about design engineering that excites you?
Science and engineering are interesting, but its applications are what it exports and brings to the market. Design engineering best demonstrates the fusion of engineering knowledge with design and development to bring about innovations. It is difficult to think out of the box, unshackle from convention and not fear to make mistakes. Yet the same challenges encourage creation, perseverance, determination, as well as the most exciting ideas and new technologies.
What was the motivation or inspiration behind your invention?
It all started with my dad’s diagnosis with glaucoma last year. He suffered from constant eye pain and headaches before my family realised his condition. He had to visit the doctor every 2 to 3 hours over a day, and each time anaesthesia had to be applied for eye pressure testing.
The uncomfortable treatment and frequent hospital visits left a deep impression on me and my family. This motivated me to delve deeper into the disease and its treatments. I later found out that accurate eye pressure (intraocular pressure) measurement is crucial for glaucoma management.
Most clinical trials in glaucoma have relied on Goldmann applanation tonometry (GAT) as the gold standard. GAT requires specialised training, the use of fluorescein dye, and topical anaesthesia. Even though home tonometry provides some insight to avoid frequent hospital visits and minimises disruption to a patient’s daily routine, it is still costly and inaccurate. Measurements may differ from GAT substantially in patients with elevated eye pressure. These drawbacks motivate us to develop a safe, accurate, low cost, at-home self-administered eye pressure sensor.
Talk us through your journey in designing, developing, iterating, and testing your invention.
Our team led by Prof. Benjamin Tee began studying high-resolution and high-speed electronic skin sensor arrays in 2018. Seeking to find enhanced applications for our sensor technology by combining it with artificial intelligence, we encountered the challenges faced by glaucoma patients and clinicians.
After interviewing patients and clinicians, our team identified several limitations of current tonometry: specialised equipment and personnel, high monitoring costs, pain and discomfort from anaesthesia and corneal contact of clinical tonometry, inaccurate measurements, and regular hospital visits. These drove the ideation of a pain-free, low cost and reliable eye pressure sensor.
Our initial prototype consisted of a 3D-printed sensor holder with bulky electronics. After feedback from clinicians and volunteers, we decided to integrate the sensor onto a glove to make HOPES wearable. We then designed a lightweight, wearable single-finger glove with incorporated electronics into a smart watch design.
For more user-friendly features, we brainstormed and plan to introduce Bluetooth communication to transmit collected data to the paired device for real-time viewing. For HOPES performance, we continue iterating to improve the accuracy and usability by collecting data from users to train our machine learning model. We will also continue to look out for user feedback and clinician evaluations since they are imperative to us throughout the design process to optimise HOPES’ features and user experience.
How long did this process take?
Our ideation started last year. We are currently working on iterating and testing HOPES. It took us about 8 months to reach our current stage.
What were some of the challenges you faced while developing your invention?
Designing the technology into a right form factor is critical so that users of all ages can use it easily with little training. We had to work with materials, electronics and software to make the technology work well in various situations, especially when it is a home use device.
The other main design challenge was to create a non-invasive solution for the user. While GAT requires direct corneal contact to measure eye pressure, we wanted the user to be able to measure their eye pressure easily by simply applying their finger to their eyelid.
Additional eye factors such as eyelid thickness and its properties thus need to be taken into consideration. These factors pose challenges in training our machine learning model.
Additionally, to adapt from bulk electronics to a wearable device, we faced the challenges in product design. We took inspiration from fishing gloves to reduce the size of HOPES. We aim to make HOPES an elegant design, lightweight, and fitted for all.
What motivated you to join the James Dyson Award this year?
James Dyson builds great products. In my current research group led by Professor Benjamin Tee, our motto is to make awesome technologies that impact lives. Thus, in many ways, we were inspired by Dyson products. We believe the James Dyson award is a great platform for us to think differently, invent and create products that can actually make a difference. This is also a great platform to exchange the ideas among young engineers and designers around the world.
What are your thoughts on being a National Finalist of the James Dyson Award 2021?
We are really honoured to be a National Winner, and are excited about showcasing our invention to the world. We really look forward to representing Singapore in the international phase.
What are some future plans for your invention?
We intend to bring HOPES to the market. We are currently cooperating with ophthalmology specialist clinician Dr. Victor Koh and his team at the National University Hospital in Singapore to collect patients’ eye pressure data to train our machine learning model, while optimising performance by iterating and improving the design and form factor of our invention.
Our next goals are to collect larger datasets through clinical trials and to design and synchronise HOPES with our tele-health app interface, which we will also optimise. For more user-friendly features, we intend to add Bluetooth communication to transmit collected data to the paired devices for real-time viewing. We also plan to work with hospitals to run pilot programs with our tele-health app interface. Lastly, we hope to be able to apply for required funding to further facilitate the product commercialisation globally.
As a design engineer, what do you hope to see more of in the design engineering industry?
I hope the design engineering industry will be more committed to sustainable practices. New inventions and technologies should also take into account ethical considerations. Moreover, the convergence of artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data is heralding what many call a new industrial revolution. The design engineering industry could further help accelerate the understanding of the Artificial intelligence (AI) through designing and commercialisation to benefit people worldwide. It would also be great if the industry could offer more platforms to recognise the efforts of current design engineers, and to educate and inspire more passionate engineers to join the industry.
In a world full of problems waiting to be solved, what do you think young inventors like yourself can bring to table?
Young inventors can help bring new perspectives to existing solutions or problems because of our lack of experience or simply naivety. This can help contribute innovative ideas and develop tangible technologies to modern challenges.