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Get to Know: Agnes Xue, 2009 Singapore People’s Choice Award Winner of the James Dyson Award

25 May 2021

We live in a world where busyness is the norm; we pride ourselves in checking off to-do lists, sometimes even neglecting our health in the process. Having experienced this personally, Agnes Xue, then a doctoral student at the National University of Singapore decided to come up with a solution for women to stay on top of their health – Luna. Luna went on to receive the title of People’s Choice at the Singapore James Dyson Award. Today, Agnes continues to invent, and has made it her mission to nurture a new generation of inventors and design thinkers.

What is your invention? Where did you get your inspiration from?

Women today lead very busy lives and juggle many responsibilities. This unfortunately leaves them with very little time to actively manage their own health, and makes them vulnerable to one of the most common cancers amongst women – breast cancer.

This inspired me to come up with Luna – a connected and integrative 2-part breast care device. It allows women to self-examine their breasts in the comfort and privacy of their homes, and detect any early signs of breast cancer.

How does your invention work?

The handheld unit incorporates a soft screening pad interface made of flexible, bio-elastic materials and multiple sensors to feel for lumps on the breast and thus detect abnormalities under the surface of the skin. The other unit is meant for charging as well as a visual platform for reading stored records.

Embedded intelligent biomedical technology also helps generate reports that track any changes in the user’s breasts, which can be valuable information for doctors.

Why were you inspired to enter the JDA?

As a designer I was keen to know what the industry thought about my invention, and if they saw potential in it. I had also felt that joining a prestigious design competition such as the James Dyson Award would also lead to new opportunities.

What James Dyson Award prize did you win? How did the prize help you?

While I wasn’t the National Winner or Runner-up, I was recognised as the ‘People’s Choice’ awardee. The recognition I received from the James Dyson Award and the resulting coverage helped me build my confidence as a designer, and gave me a sense of validation to the way I approach design.

What did you learn from entering the James Dyson Award?

Conducting deep and thorough research is incredibly important if you wish to develop a product that has the potential to make it to the market. It’s not just about designing a product, but also thinking about how it could be commercialised and made into a viable business model.

What were your next steps once you won your prize?

I had hoped that a company would been keen to further the development of Luna. While that did not happen, I was not discouraged in any way. Developing a healthcare technology product can be an incredibly complicated process, and perhaps technology in general at the time was not yet at a level advanced enough to be translated to a product on the shelf.

What are you doing now 12 years after entering the Award?

I’m now an Associate Professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology. I teach design thinking and innovation to many non-design students, from disciplines such as Nursing, Occupational Therapy and Mechanical Design Engineering. Since 2009, I’ve also worked on a number of inventions and projects that solve other problems, such as devices that support limb rehabilitation.

What has been your biggest learning over the past 12 years?

The key to designing for any market is to really get to know your users. You must know who they are, the problems they face, their needs and preferences, and even their culture. Designing a product is just one part of the equation.

Importantly, you must also think about how to commercialise product and transform it into a scalable business model so that you can reach as many of your target users as you can.

What would you say to someone thinking of applying to the James Dyson Award this year?

Go for it! Submission is easy and it’s completely free. In addition, the recognition and media exposure you stand to gain from participating in such a prestigious design competition will help widen anyone’s professional network and open up new doors of opportunity.

What are your next goals for your invention?

Luna is no longer in development, but I am very proud of what I have achieved from working on it.

What do you hope to see more of in the world of engineering and design?

I hope to see more designers and engineers work together to invent new, technology-enabled, innovative and commercially viable products that solve real problems.

Any advice for future engineers and inventors?

As designers and innovators, we must look beyond own assumptions. Look at problems from different perspectives. Walk a mile in the user’s shoes in order to get a genuine understanding of their needs. A conversation is a great way to get insights, and to understand their motivations and their pains. Design not just for them, but with them.

How does it feel to be recognised by the JDA?

I feel very privileged to have been recognised by the James Dyson Award. It pushes me on to inspire the young and budding designers that I teach to be bold, and to invent something that helps improve lives and solves real problems.

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