Environment & Engineering

Winning by design

Published Jul 6, 2020

Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design recently won third place (the ‘Notable’ award) at the Core77 International Design Awards—one of the biggest design awards in the world, with entrants from professional design companies and organisations such as Microsoft and Google.

The award recognises the School’s clever use of design to improve patient experience during MRI brain scanning—and highlights its strong ability to solve industry problems.

“It absolutely proves that their capabilities for completing commercial design projects are both world-leading and outcome-driven,” says Dr Ashwath Sundaresan, Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager. “Our job is to help the School to find future commercial opportunities that can take advantage of those skills, and create positive impact in the same way that they have for this project.”

The award-winning project started out in the University’s Robinson Research Institute, with senior engineer Ben Parkinson’s research into MRI systems using high temperature superconducting magnets. MRI magnets built using high temperature superconductors are much more robust and more portable than their current clinical counterparts. 

“Whilst MRI is the gold standard for non-invasive medical imaging, existing MRI scanners are large and expensive to purchase, install and run,” says Ben. “During a scan, patients must lie down with their entire body enclosed in a very noisy environment—often causing them to experience claustrophobia and anxiety.” He says this can make MRI scanning inaccessible to the very people who may benefit from using the powerful imaging technique.

Aiming to help solve that problem, Ben developed a highly compact MRI magnet as part of a project to develop a more accessible, helmet-like MRI brain imaging system. The project is being run by the Centre for Magnetic Resonance Research at the University of Minnesota, funded by the United States’ National Institutes of Health.

The project team realised that not only would they need to develop new hardware, they would also need to change how the patient interacted with the system. Their goal was to create a helmet-like system that would allow patients to sit upright with only their head and neck inside the magnet, with a window to help reduce feelings of claustrophobia.

Looking for a suitable design team, Ben connected with his colleague, Dr Edgar Rodriguez, Associate Professor in the School of Design. While the NIH grant was used to develop the magnet, more funding was required to design a user-centric system. Wellington UniVentures—who had been been involved since the beginning, helping Ben to patent and commercialise the brain imaging magnet itself—subsequently approached KiwiNet for funding.

“The KiwiNet funding meant that Ben was able to engage us on a commercial basis to work on the design and user experience of the device—he knew what we could bring to the table and was keen to work with us,” says Edgar.

He says the project involved developing numerous design prototypes, usability tests with participants and MRI experts, and the production of a full-scale, helmet-like prototype. The design team—led by Edgar—included a postdoctoral fellow, two Masters students and several research assistants working closely with Ben and his team over two years.

The award-winning final design system consists of a movable chair that positions the user correctly inside the magnet bore, which can be controlled by the patient with a remote control to help alleviate anxiety. Once the patient is positioned correctly inside the system, he or she may then inflate the head support system around a number of contact points on the head, to securely yet comfortably hold the head in position for the scanning procedure.

“The award simply confirms what we already knew—that the skills in the School of Design are world-class,” says Ben. “It was so easy to collaborate with them as they know exactly how to engage on a project level. We’re thrilled with the results—we got exactly what the project needed and it looks beautiful!”

Edgar says the team is delighted to have won the ‘Notable’ award in such a prestigious design competition.“It proves that we can compete on an international stage, and it shows our students that we are right up there with the best.”

Ashwath says that Edgar and his design team have the kind of talent and experience that industry demands: “New Zealand companies who are seeking first-class design capabilities need look no further than what Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design has to offer."



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