​The new Duke-NUS Health Innovator Programme (DHIP) held its first ‘shark tank’-style event today, where the winning team walked away with S$20,000 for their new prototype to prevent perinatal tears during childbirth and its high potential to benefit patients and the healthcare system.

Launched in September 2022, DHIP aims to instil an innovation-driven mindset in students so that they will continue to improve clinical practice after they graduate. Led by Assistant Professor Rena Dharmawan (Class of 2011), the programme is conducted through a nine-month innovation fellowship at Duke-NUS.

"Besides training competent and compassionate doctors, we continually find diverse ways to encourage our students to acquire the skills and mindset that set them on the path to leadership positions in medical research, innovation and education," said Duke-NUS Dean Professor Thomas Coffman. "DHIP is the latest in our endeavours to ensure our students are poised to make a difference to communities in Singapore and beyond."

The three competing teams were part of DHIP’s inaugural cohort and were tasked to identify issues in the field of women’s health and come up with solutions. In each team, a third-year medical student is teamed up with peers from the National University of Singapore’s engineering and business programmes. KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, a part of Duke-NUS academic medicine partner SingHealth, is the main clinical partner for the programme this year while innovators from the business sector are also on board to mentor the students.

While the winning team sought to prevent perinatal tears during labour, the other two teams pursued innovative ideas to boost successful in vitro fertilisation and remotely monitor high-risk pregnancies. To date, two provisional patents have been filed for the cohort’s projects.

"It was wonderful to see students and mentors from different backgrounds come together to establish projects leveraging on each other’s strengths over these short nine months," said Assistant Professor Dharmawan, who is also Assistant Dean for Innovation Education and Ecosystem Development at Duke-NUS. "I look forward to the continued partnership after the programme between the team, their clinicians and industry mentors and hope they will continue developing their projects, reach market and most importantly, improve patient outcomes."

The DHIP curriculum takes students through four phases—Discovery, Design, Develop and Dazzle—during which they learn to identify problems that patients face and then design solutions from the patients’ perspective. As part of the ‘Dazzle’ phase, the students present their innovations and what they address in an intensive pitching and Q&A session with a panel of judges from academia, research and industry.

The winning team’s ‘OasiGuard’ is a device that prevents perineal lacerations or tears during natural childbirth. As 9 in 10 women experience such tears during natural childbirth, with 3 in 10 experiencing deeper tears that require suturing, OasiGuard will lower the rates of perineal tears during birth, protecting mothers from unnecessary physical and mental trauma.

"This project truly allowed me to get an appreciation on the marriage of medicine, engineering and business," said third-year Duke-NUS MD student Mr Feng Yi Low, 27, who is a part of the winning team FemTech that worked on ‘OasiGuard’.

"Collaborating in a multidisciplinary team has taught me the importance of diverse perspectives and expertise, leading to more innovative and comprehensive solutions," said NUS Engineering student Ms Casey Ang Fann Ting, 22, who also a part of team FemTech.

NUS Business student of the team, Ms Anar Sanjaykumar Kothary, 28, added, "I learnt about critically evaluating what to prioritise and deprioritise when making business decisions for an early-stage company through my discussions with our industry mentor, Dr Kevin Koh of Vivo Surgical."

The other two teams’ inventions also focussed on improving the chances of successful pregnancies: ‘TuPart’ is a handheld ultrasound device that provides real-time guidance for mothers to assess foetal wellbeing from the comfort of their homes, while ‘Flow’ is an enhanced embryo transfer catheter that maximises the possibility of successful embryo deposition during in vitro fertilisation.

All three teams will be pursuing full patent applications over the next 12 months. Next year, DHIP is planning to centre its theme around primary health and oncology and to take on twice as many students in its next cohort.