Eilish Marra’s shoes are too big. In her left shoe, she’s testing a bespoke insole made of special material that senses the pressure exerted by her foot as she walks. It then sends that information to a computer at her workshop in Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington's Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation, where she works as a Research Assistant.
A custom fitted insole is just one application of the smart, pressure-sensing technology Eilish has created with her supervisor, Jeongbin Ok, and she hopes it will improve outcomes for patients with diabetic foot ulcers – a condition affecting nearly a quarter of people living with diabetes.
Eilish began researching force-sensing technology as a summer student in Jeongbin’s lab. The work morphed into a Master of Design Innovation project, and then a career in research. As someone with an eye for aesthetics, creating sensor platforms is not what Eilish set out to do as a design student, but she was drawn to the idea of using her skills to solve real-world problems.
It's this drive that led Eilish to team up with Wellington UniVentures for the first time in 2020, to set a direction for her research that aligned with market needs. She knew her innovation had potential but wasn’t sure where it could have the most impact. Together, Wellington UniVentures and Eilish landed on medical applications for the technology.
Now, with several prototypes of smart therapeutic insoles afoot, Eilish is sharpening her entrepreneurial skills through the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator (EI) programme.
Joining the Emerging Innovator Programme
Wellington UniVentures’ Commercialisation Manager Sam Wojcik is leading an exploratory commercialisation project alongside Eilish based on her research.
“Eilish is eager to see her research turned into a product that can help people. The EI programme is a perfect fit for Eilish as she prepares to spin-out a company and make that jump between academia and entrepreneurship.”
He says early engagement with Eilish has led to more impactful research. “It’s been great to be part of Eilish’s entrepreneurial journey since day one. Engaging with innovators early in their research means we can help them shape their projects towards real-world applications aligned with market opportunities.”
Eilish has created a novel type of soft, pressure sensing material that can be used to design better lower limb prosthetics and monitor diabetic foot ulcers.
In New Zealand alone, 1300 people lose their lower limbs every year, and 40% of these patients are fitted with a prosthetic. Currently, creating a custom-fit prosthetic involves a process of trial and error, but Eilish’s material can be inserted into a prosthetic to sense pressure points as it's being fitted, creating a pressure map that clinicians can use to ensure a comfortable fit.
Preventing and monitoring diabetic foot ulcers is another application that Eilish is exploring.
“By working with Peke Waihanga – NZ Artificial Limb Service, we learned that the majority of foot amputations are a result of diabetic ulcers. Our technology can be used to create an insole that prevents ulcers before they take hold.”
Worn inside the shoe, the pressure sensing insole could map the bottom of a patient’s foot, sending real-time data to their clinician. This data could be used to make medical decisions about whether an ulcer is forming or changing.
How will the EI programme support the project?
Eilish knows entrepreneurship is a good career fit for her, and she’s excited to learn how to run a successful start-up through the EI programme.
“I’m enjoying learning about what kind of role I’d like to play in a future company – I can’t do everything, so it’s about figuring out where I can have most impact and what roles I should delegate to others.”
Eilish also looks forward to making connections through the programme. “As researchers, we make assumptions all the time about how people will use our product and what investors are looking for. It will be great to get out there and test some of those ideas with people I meet through the programme.”