Innovating real-world healthcare solutions
During this year’s Innovation Scholars Program, a team of four St. Olaf College students partnered with an early stage medical company that manufactures products for emergency medical services (EMS).
Working at the intersection of science, healthcare, and entrepreneurship, they focused on decision-making software for EMS, designing and innovating ways to reduce pre-hospital medical errors.
A few weeks after the program ended, the students received a call back from the medical company asking for a follow-up conversation about the product they had developed.
“It was very validating, and showed that they valued the students’ advice and outside expertise, and that the product the students developed for them exceeded their expectations,” says St. Olaf Professor of Biology and Chair of the Health Professions Committee Kevin Crisp, who serves as the faculty advisor for the Innovation Scholars Program.
Computer science major Dhesel Khando ’24 says applying her academic knowledge and seeing the impact of her work for a real-world company was incredibly fulfilling.
“The most rewarding aspect was the opportunity to make a tangible impact on the businesses,” she says.
The most rewarding aspect was the opportunity to make a tangible impact on the businesses.Dhesel Khando ’24
The students participating in this year’s program have a wide range of majors — chemistry, Spanish, computer science, and economics. Together they conducted research and collaborated with professionals to design and innovate solutions to challenges facing the med-tech industry.
“It would have been impossible for any of us to do alone,” says Margaret Dickey ’23. “My biggest takeaway from this experience was how much of a difference having an excellent team can have on the outcome of a project.”
Paul Edwards, the associate director of career development and coaching in the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, is one of the advisors for the Innovation Scholars Program. He says the students’ ability to collaborate and quickly become an efficient team is integral to their success in this program.
“Students start out with different levels of experience and confidence,” he says, “but it’s fulfilling to see them grow together and learn from each other as a team as they grapple with challenges.”
Crisp says the interdisciplinary nature of the team makes this program especially unique.
“Whether an economics major, a nursing major, or a pre-health student, no student begins this project feeling ready for it,” he says. “But through team interactions, they grow into confident decision-makers.”
Quinn Truax ’23 says by putting four Oles with different academic backgrounds in one room, they naturally had different ideas and expectations.
“It was extremely important for our team to communicate our goals and feel comfortable openly debating different points of view,” says Truax.
Khando says the diversity in academic disciplines broadened her own perspective and facilitated the team’s approach to addressing challenges from new and different angles, expanding the innovation and comprehension of their research reports.
“I learned a lot about the challenges faced by startups and the collaboration and diversity of thought that can lead to success,” she says.
Highly competitive, the Innovation Scholars program is coordinated and offered by the Piper Center in partnership with the Biology Department. In the video profile below, Innovation Scholars Nhu Ba Nguyen ’23, Meg Prapatthong ’23, Carter Anderson ’23, and Abby Liberkowski ’22 share how their team worked with a Mayo Clinic inventor last year on a report to help both the inventor and investors decide where to take that product. It was an incredible opportunity to work with one of the best medical facilities in the world, Prapatthong and Liberkowski note.
“The Mayo Clinic is such a renowned institution, and they really pave the way for a lot of the medical decisions and set the tone for all of healthcare,” Liberkowski says.
Nguyen adds that the powerful experience helped her determine her career path.
“I got to really dig deep into the healthcare sector, especially in economic and financial modeling, and now I think I found what I want to do in the future,” Nguyen says.
The skills that students gain in this unique and challenging program are valuable and highly transferable — not to mention tailored to their specific goals by a staff advisor, and applicable in a variety of different roles.
“It takes a level of discipline, organization, planning, and flexibility to be successful in this type of program,” says Crisp. “It’s not for everyone, but for those who want a challenge, it’s the real deal.”
It takes a level of discipline, organization, planning, and flexibility to be successful in this type of program. It’s not for everyone, but for those who want a challenge, it’s the real deal.Innovation Scholars Faculty Advisor Kevin Crisp
Facilitating the individual development of the students, Edwards gets an understanding of their future plans and goals, and helps them identify and develop key entrepreneurial skills that can be leveraged when applying to future internships, full-time jobs, or graduate school.
With a background in chemistry, statistics, and data science, and experience as an on-campus EMT, Truax says the chance this program gave him to learn about medical device development is not one he would’ve had otherwise.
“I learned how to analyze markets and create financial models,” says Truax. “I may not be an entrepreneur, but I would definitely be interested in working on a project similar to this as I advance in my career.”
Going into the program as a pre-med student, Dickey was aware that she has a relatively narrow view of medicine because she looks at the field as someone who wants to be a provider.
As an on-campus EMT and nursing assistant at Northfield Hospital, she works with medical products and technology every day, but has never put much thought into where they come from or how they’re developed and purchased.
“I think it’s important for providers to have other perspectives,” she says. Now Dickey knows what it feels like to be on the complete other end of the spectrum — where the products and technologies are still ideas being innovated and introduced to the market.
“I was excited by the opportunity to go in-depth on one topic in medicine for a month and see how that topic can be interdisciplinary in the world of business and economics,” Dickey says. “I had no sense for the actual depth we would go or the different types of analysis I would learn how to do.”
Khando, who wanted to gain hands-on experience working with businesses in a real-world setting, says, “the program not only met but exceeded my expectations.”