Graduate students at Johns Hopkins University are behind two recent health care innovations designed to make life easier for women.
The inventors of both products took part last spring in a nine-week accelerator program at Hopkins’ FastForward U entrepreneurship hub.
Janis Iourovitski, who recently completed a master’s degree in engineering at Hopkins’ Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, or CBID, invented the OvuBrush, a toothbrush with a sensor that analyzes a user’s saliva to track changes in estrogen levels.
The goal is to help people maximize their chances of becoming pregnant by identifying the “ovulation window” when they are most likely to conceive.
“It’s important to know where that window starts to maximize the odds” of conceiving, said Iourovitski, who surveyed more than 100 individuals about their efforts to become pregnant.
Difficulties with conception can be “extremely brutal for some people emotionally,” said Iourovitski, now a fellow with CBID.
About 10 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States have difficulty getting or staying pregnant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While fertility tracking devices that analyze saliva are not new, Iourovitski said OvuBrush was created to simplify the tracking process.
“It’s designed to seamlessly integrate into your daily routine,” said Iourovitski, who first came up with the idea as an engineering undergraduate at California Polytechnic State University. “Brushing their teeth in the morning will provide (people) with information around their fertility window.”
Also, unlike existing fertility tracking devices, which must be used at the same time every day, OvuBrush provides more flexibility, allowing women to travel or sleep in on weekends, Iourovitski said.
With help from a $10,000 award from FastForward U, Iourovitski continues to test sensors and refine her marketing approach. She hopes to launch OvuBrush in 2024.
Johns Hopkins graduate students Danielle Nicklas and Alexis Lowe and medical student Clarissa Ren are working to perfect NovvaCup, a menstrual cup designed to be easier to use than menstrual cups currently on the market.
Made of rubber or silicone, menstrual cups are inserted into the vaginal canal, where they form a seal and collect menses. They are supposed to be removed and washed every few hours and can be used each month for years.
Nicklas tried using a menstrual cup after hearing about them from friends who studied abroad, where they are more commonly used. While she liked the idea of a period product that was less expensive and more environmentally friendly than tampons and pads, she found the cup difficult to use.
“I hated it,” said Nicklas, a Ph.D. candidate in pathobiology who studies emerging pathogens. “It wasn’t a great user experience.”
Citing the rigidity of most menstrual cups, which makes them difficult to insert and remove, Nicklas said she sought to create a cup whose “collapsibility” would make it as easy to use as a tampon.
Lowe, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, said the NovvaCup team looked to origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, as well as to satellites and flowers when developing an easy-to-fold design.
“We take inspiration from origami and from the way satellites are designed to expand in space,” Lowe said, adding that the teammates also examined the shape of flowers that fold inward and close.
“We look at nature’s designs,” she said.
Nicklas, who said the NovvaCup team has raised about $25,000, emphasized the cup’s low impact on users’ pocketbooks and on the environment.
“We’re hoping to provide a financially sustainable option for women, who don’t have to be making recurring purchases of disposables,” she said, adding that she hoped the cup would be on the market next year. “And hopefully you aren’t generating as much waste into the landfill. We’re making a small contribution to being eco-friendly.”
Lowe said the NovvaCup team had met with OvuBrush’s Janis Iourovitski.
“We’re very pleased with the community of feminine product entrepreneurs,” Lowe said. “There’s a wave of innovation coming. It’s not just us.”