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Biomedical engineering graduate student Sara Della Ripa placed first at the 2018 Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Innovation Quest. Della Ripa’s idea was inspired by her engineering background and clinical experience.

Della Ripa is in the process of creating a maternal health device called the Massive Obstetric Hemorrhage Indication Device (MOHI) or Maternal Innovations Device. It will quickly predict severe postpartum hemorrhaging symptoms through a paper-based test of the blood’s ability to clot.

“Shadowing local hospitals and being in Uganda for eight weeks and doing a lot of research — it was clear that there’s a need for early detection [of postpartum hemorrhaging],” Della Ripa said.

She presented her business idea to a judging panel at Innovation Quest in hopes of making her product a reality.

Innovation Quest

Innovation Quest is an annual competition  founded by Cal Poly students in 2003 that has awarded student start-up ventures for the past 14 years.

Out of 46 applicants, a panel of judges selected 13 finalists, according to the director of Innovation Quest and biomedical engineering professor Thomas Katona. These finalists presented their business idea in-person to a room full of judges, most of whom were Cal Poly alumni.

Katona said the challenge serves as a great way for students to get business experience and potentially win money to continue developing their companies.

“[Students] need those opportunities to express their own creative desires within the context of trying to put that into developing something that would really create value for an end customer, and so I think it is one of the most valuable things we do on campus,” Katona said.

The challenge participants are encouraged to go to Innovation Quest workshops throughout the year during which Cal Poly professors and other local business owners can advise them.

“I think students are more motivated to learn when the learning is driven by their own passion and so setting up a place where there is some framework to it,” Katona said. “It’s not just wandering off doing whatever, they’ve got guidance and coaching.”

Della Ripa won $15,000 to help her pursue her passion; the second place winner, Pantry, won $10,000; and Lost Coast Surf Tech won $5,000 for placing third.

Winners are not required to use the money for their companies. However, Katona said, the hope is winners will become successful business owners and give back to future student business developers.

According to Della Ripa, when she first applied for the competition with her business partner Nathan Bair, she did not expect to make it to the final round.

“I got into finals and that was a very celebratory moment and I didn’t think I was going to place at all, but once I started getting closer to [the competition], I was like, ‘No, I know this is important and I think other people are going to know this is important,’” Della Ripa said.

The MOHI Device & Postpartum Hemorrhaging

Postpartum hemorrhaging is the number one cause of maternal death across the world, according to InPress Technologies, where Della Ripa and Bair work. Although there is no way to tell in advance if a patient is at risk of postpartum hemorrhaging, fatalities can be prevented in 90 percent of hemorrhaging incidents, Della Ripa said.

Della Ripa’s research showed 3 to 18 percent of mothers died from hemorrhaging after giving birth. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among industrialized nations, yet developing nations still suffer the most.

“It’s amazing to me that people are letting this happen. I mean, people aren’t letting this happen, but it seems like it’s OK. It’s OK that mothers are dying during childbirth because there’s not enough being done about it,” Della Ripa said.

According to Della Ripa, the numbers vary greatly because many hospitals will often attribute postpartum hemorrhaging death to other causes because these fatalities are almost always preventable.

Her research found that the cause is often a result of the physician denying the problem and delaying treatment. However, Della Ripa does not fault the obstetricians, but rather the technology gaps in maternal healthcare.

“The technology is not there and so, doctors — it’s hard for doctors. You’re in this extremely emergency situation and they are trying to figure out why the woman is bleeding, and it — it turns into this chaotic moment where you have to act fast and it’s actually easy to miss the really dangerous point when a woman’s blood [is] unable to clot naturally,” Della Ripa said.

As of now, the only Occupational Safety and Health Administration-approved method to determine if a patient is at risk of hemorrhaging is to a blood sample to a lab, but doing so can take up to an hour if the hospital does not have a lab on site. However, Della Ripa said a patient may bleed to death before then.

With Della Ripa’s test, the physicians would be able to detect whether or not a patient’s blood has clotting capability early on. According to Della Ripa, early detection and diagnosis are extremely crucial and can save lives.

Although there are businesses trying to cure postpartum hemorrhaging, there are few focused on early detection because of the social issues surrounding maternal health in addition to the lack of technology and research.

InPress Technologies, where Della Ripa has worked for the past two-and-a-half years, is one of the companies performing clinical trials to find a cure. InPress Technologies is a medical device company created by Cal Poly students who won Innovation Quest years ago.

It was at InPress Technologies that Della Ripa found her passion for maternal healthcare. However, it was her volunteer work at Marian Hospital in Santa Maria, California that inspired her vision for her product.

“The doctors are just used to what they’re used to, but if you come in as an outsider with an engineering mind … you realize, ‘Yeah …  there are some gaps here’,” Della Ripa said. “It really brought those two things together for me when I started shadowing. I know [my idea] would have never happened, I would have never found this need, found this solution, without shadowing.”

This need was reinforced when Della Ripa worked on a clinical trial with InPress Technologies in Uganda.

“When I was in Uganda, there was a clinic that was maybe a half-mile from the hospital I was staying at and this woman was transferred too late. She was only a half-mile from the clinic, I could almost see the clinic from the hospital,” Della Ripa said.

Della Ripa said the woman had lost four liters of blood; however, it is often difficult to correlate the amount of blood loss to the potential for hemorrhaging.

“That was really horrific. Being there for that was really hard, and knowing that if — if they had an indication of when to transfer a woman, because one of the main hospitals would have something to give her, they would have the plasma potentially [to save her],” Della Ripa said.

Della Ripa said she will invest all the money she won from Innovation Quest into her product and hopes once her product is developed, it can be implemented in hospitals around the world.

Once she graduates in June, Della Ripa plans to spend her summer in the SLO Hot House and to develop a proof of concept test by fall.

“I have no doubts because I will pour my entire heart and soul into this,” Della Ripa said.

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