Infection-resistant catheter plan wins Y-Prize

The winning team of four undergraduates wants to reinvent the catheter using a special wrinkle printing technology created at Penn.

The four Y-Prize winners with their trophies.
The winners, from left: Ishir Seth, Tanvi Kapur, Beatriz Go, WenTao Zhang. (Photo: Michelle Eckert)

A plan for a new, improved catheter designed to stop costly—and deadly—infections at the source is the winner of this year’s $10,000 Y-Prize, awarded Jan. 28 to four Penn undergraduates. The team beat out three other finalists at the event.

The students are Tanvi Kapur, a senior at the Wharton School, Beatriz Go, a senior at Wharton and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and junior Ishir Seth and senior WenTao Zhang, in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Science Management, a dual-degree program through the Wharton School and the College of Arts & Sciences

Along with the prize money, their company, Nosoco Technologies, is also entered into the semi-final round of the Penn Startup Challenge later this year if the project meets that competition’s guidelines.  

The Nosoco team, which came together at a table outside Wharton’s Huntsman Hall, had a personal reason for tackling the catheter problem, Kapur says: Zhang’s great-grandfather died from complications of a catheter-related infection. 

“This is a huge problem in hospitals,” she says.  

The Y-Prize is a collaboration between Penn Engineering, Wharton’s William and Phyllis Mack Institute for Innovation Management, Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, and the Penn Center for Innovation. Applicants submit a video pitch explaining their idea, why it’s needed, and how they plan to make it happen. 

Contestants had a choice this year between two Penn-grown technologies: roll-to-roll surface wrinkle printing and embodied logic. All four finalists chose the printing technology, which was invented by School of Engineering and Applied Science professors Daeyeon Lee and Kathleen Stebe, of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Shu Yang, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Xu Zhang, a postdoc who works with them. 

Roll-to-roll printing technology isn’t new. It’s used, for example, to print newspapers. The process is increasingly common at the micro- and nanoscale level, to give companies a more consistent product. And the value of patterns and wrinkles, from gecko feet to transistors, has long been prized, in the natural world and in man-made objects.  

What the Penn engineers developed creates wrinkles on a material that’s manufactured in a large quantity, like a bolt of cloth, rather than piece by piece. That could serve as a base for stretchable electronics, a platform for medical research, and more. 

The Nosoco idea is to incorporate the micro-sized crevices into the catheter wall, to prevent or disrupt the formation of biofilms, a super-thin slime of bacteria that clings to a surface. That pesky little bit of scum around your dishwasher drain is a biofilm; so is the plaque on your teeth. Many biofilms are harmless, but when “bad” bacteria band together, it can cause infection. 

For hospital patients who need a catheter, this is a serious problem that costs insurers and hospitals $3.5 billion a year in the United States alone. Kapur says there are 1 million catheter-associated infections each year, and 13,000 people die from conditions such as sepsis and nephritis.

What appealed to the Nosoco team, Kapur says, is the antimicrobial properties of the wrinkled material, which the team plans to make from silicone. 

“The bacteria physically can’t adhere to the surface wrinkles,” she says. 

Since forming the team in October 2018, the group worked with researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to figure out whether the idea will work. Now, with the Y-Prize money, Nosoco can move toward testing the viability of the product by the end of the year. In vivo testing and clinical trials would come next.

The company has an ambitious timeline, Seth says, as the team plans to work on in-vitro efficacy testing as soon as they can.

Kapur, who’s from Frankfurt, Germany, and Go, who hails from Manila, Philippines, have been friends since their sophomore year and have worked on numerous projects together. Seth, from Rochester, New York, and Zhang, who’s from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, had a similar close friendship. Now that they’ve joined forces, everyone is excited, even as they juggle their studies. 

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Go says. “We are applying all the learnings and resources we’ve gained over the course of our time at Penn to create a device that we believe in and that can potentially impact millions of lives.”