Alumnus and Professor Partner to Bring Revolutionary Medical Sensor to Market

Opal HTM technology monitors usage of biomedical devices like infusion pumps and dialysis machines, data that can help hospitals use limited resources effectively.

April 26, 2024

Opal HTM team members at GW Nursing's Simulation and Innovation Learning (SAIL) Center. Left to right: Sanchit Vijay, M.S. '24; Mobolaji Shobanke, M.S. '24; Tabitha Northrup, B.S.N. '24; Connor Roberts; SAIL Center Director Crystel Farina; Aissatou Thiam, B.S.N. '24; and Ekundayo Shittu. (Courtesy E. Shittu)

Opal HTM team members, L to R: engineering grad students Sanchit Vijay and Mobolaji Shobanke; nursing student Tabitha Northrup; Connor Roberts; SAIL Center Director Crystel Farina; nursing student Aissatou Thiam; Ekundayo Shittu. (Courtesy E. Shittu)

Hospitals depend on medical devices like infusion pumps, EKG monitors and electronic hospital beds. They’re critical for patient care, but they’re also expensive, not just to purchase but in the costly maintenance schedules they incur. Some estimates put annual American hospital spending on these devices at almost $200 billion dollars—and that data predates COVID-19. Hospital managers, whose purview includes hundreds or even thousands of such devices, may defer to manufacturer-set maintenance schedules that are neither the most efficient use of the hospital’s financial resources nor the safest, most responsive approach. But what if the machines themselves could tell managers what they need and when?

That’s the new model that Connor Roberts, a double alumnus of the George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science, is working to develop alongside professor Ekundayo Shittu. Roberts is CEO and founder of Opal HTM, which innovates devices and advanced algorithms to track equipment use, analyze machines’ reliability over time and quantify key factors like a device’s age, usage, and physical location. At present they have received almost a million dollars of competitive funding from multiple sources, including a three-year, $550,000 Partnerships for Innovation grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a one-year $275,000 NSF Phase 1 STTR award, and a $50,000 GW Technology Maturation award.

“We want to empower hospitals, who are always being asked to do more with less,” said Shittu, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering and corporate adviser to Opal HTM who also is a member of the GW chapter of the National Academy of Inventors and the National Innovation Network.

Roberts, B.S. ’16, M.S. ’17, explained that two disparate problems present themselves with managing medical devices: inventory optimization and maintenance optimization.

“The thing that ties them together is tracking utilization,” he said. “If hospital staff know how much their devices are actually being used, then they can better calibrate procurement decisions to reduce waste and boost care capacity. And by tailoring maintenance to actual use, device reliability can be improved while freeing up staff resources to focus on pressing matters like cybersecurity or improving the environment of care.”

Opal HTM’s signature technology is a small module that attaches to a device’s power port, gathering and wirelessly reporting data about how often that device is used, what it’s used for and how much power it consumes. To alert users to issues that may require attention, it uses an algorithm trained to track and recognize device use. If an average hospital bed consumes a certain kilowattage per day, for instance, a bed consuming double or a tenth of that amount would trigger an alert.

To refine their algorithm, Shittu, Roberts and their team—including graduate engineering students Mobolaji Shobanke and Sanchit Vijay—are currently gathering and analyzing colossal amounts of data from real-time use by partners, including GW’s own School of Nursing. Opal HTM  technology is in use at the school’s state-of-the-art Simulation and Innovation Learning (SAIL) Center to track the way student nurses use their equipment, an integration Roberts and Shittu credit to the support and advocacy of former SAIL Center Director Crystel Farina.

"What excites me most about Opal HTM tech is that it has the potential to help our healthcare facilities decrease waste and increase efficiency, [which] will impact the facilities' costs and therefore help to decrease healthcare costs to the patients," said Farina, who now serves as the school's associate dean for B.S.N. programs. "I decided to advocate for this at the SAIL Center because it is important for all of us to find ways to impact healthcare costs to ensure that all people have access to safe and efficient healthcare. This technology will help nurses by letting them know if a medical device is not working at the optimum level so that they can ensure it receives the maintenance or updates required. That has the potential to impact patient outcomes."

Roberts and Shittu said a substantial percentage of hospital devices are regularly unused, a major waste of resources. But without data, administrators can’t figure out why a device isn’t being used, much less take steps to remedy it. A machine may go unused because it’s stored in a low-traffic area, or because of a fixable issue like a sticky control pad or uncooperative dispensing drawer. These problems may never be elevated to formal maintenance requests; if every nurse knows a certain machine is a pain to use, they’ll simply avoid it. A device also may go unused because it’s simply not needed, in which case it could be sold or redistributed to a hospital system with higher need for that particular device. Conversely, a “preferred” machine may need more maintenance—and incur more costs—than one that’s ignored. (The more often you wear a favorite sweater, the more likely you are to spill coffee on it.) Either way, managers need data to make decisions, which the Opal HTM module can provide.

That data also provides an opportunity for safer, more responsive maintenance schedules based on usage, rather than rigid time intervals. Shittu offered an analogy: You may schedule just one yearly checkup with your doctor, but it would be foolish to ignore an issue that arises outside of that single appointment. “Let's say I saw my doctor yesterday, but today I have a headache. I’m not going to ignore the headache I have today.” That’s condition-based maintenance. To stretch the analogy, the Opal HTM module can alert managers to a device’s untimely “headache”—any issue that arises for users, regardless of how the device is scheduled to be maintained.

The journey toward Opal HTM began in 2016, when Shittu hired Roberts as a research assistant. In the email age, Roberts’ job search strategy was unconventional. He’d seen and admired the professor’s work and his entrepreneurial spirit, so he walked into Shittu’s office and asked if he was hiring. Shittu wasn’t sure; Roberts was in his final undergraduate semester and, as an electrical engineering major, wasn’t even in Shittu’s department. But as Roberts was leaving, Shittu remembered a funded project that tracked condition-based medical device maintenance factors like moisture and vibration. Roberts’ electrical engineering expertise would be useful.

The two hit it off almost immediately. Their project was selected for GW’s NSF Regional I-Corps program, which trains entrepreneurial student and faculty researchers to help bring their discoveries to market. They later progressed to national I-Corps, but while conducting more than 200 customer interviews for the market research that is an essential part of the I-Corps program, Roberts and Shittu found that they weren’t addressing hospital professionals’ most pressing problem. Their devices were fairly reliable in terms of environmental wear and tear. What the managers needed was usage data—the gap Opal HTM eventually developed to fill.

Roberts didn’t lose interest in the project after graduating with his master’s degree in engineering management. He took a job as an electronics engineer but stayed in touch with Shittu, and in 2020 he pivoted to pursuing full commercialization of their technology, now patent-protected with the help of GW’s Technology Commercialization Office.

Both Roberts and Shittu say their partnership was made possible by an environment where students are more than passive bystanders in their own education.

“Dayo really respects his students, and he gives them the opportunity to shine and to grow,” Roberts said. Even as a graduate student, he said, Shittu entrusted him not just with important research but also with high-stakes presentations to sponsors. “He expects a lot of you in a way that gives you room for exploration and creativity. You're not just a student and you’re not just something like an employee, either. You're more like a junior partner.”

Shittu said the project gained momentum from a phrase drawn from GW Engineering Dean John Lach— “Engineering and”—and from the emphasis on translational research with impact consistently advocated by Vice President for Research Pam Norris. The Opal HTM tech lies “at the intersection of engineering and patient care,” he said.