Machines beeping and whirring in a rhythmic chorus, the droning hum of medical equipment, and the bustles of busy health care providers are the familiar sounds of an extended stay at a hospital. This cacophony can create a sense of urgency for medical professionals as they move about with focused determination, closely monitoring their patients, but for infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) this constant noise can be overwhelming and developmentally detrimental.
Enter Tifara Boyce, from New York City; Gabriela Cano, from Lawrenceville, New Jersey; Gabriella Daltoso, from Boise, Idaho; Sophie Ishiwari, from Chicago, and Caroline Magro, from Alexandria, Virginia, bioengineering graduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who have created the Sonura Beanie. Their device filters out harmful noises for NICU infants while supporting cognitive and socioemotional development by allowing parents to send voice messages to their newborns.
The Sonura team members are recipients of the 2023 President’s Innovation Prize, which includes an award of $100,000 and an additional $50,000 living stipend per team member. The recent graduates will spend the year developing their product.
“The Penn engineers behind Sonura are determined to make a difference in the world,” says President Liz Magill. “They identified a substantial medical challenge that affects many parents and their newborn children. With the guidance of their mentors, they are taking key steps to address it and in doing so are improving the developmental prospects for children in the NICU. I am proud the University is able to support their important work.”
The Sonura Beanie’s creation began in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace as a part of the Bioengineering Senior Design class project.
Magro, who works on the hardware for the device, drew inspiration for the product whilst working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s NICU. She was particularly struck by the noisiness of the environment and considered the neurodevelopmental outcomes that may arise following long-term exposure to the harsh sounds at a critical developmental stage for infants. This concern prompted Magro to consult her team about potential solutions.
“I was really eager to tackle this problem because it bears some personal significance to me,” says Cano, who works on the device’s mobile application. “My sister was a NICU baby who was two months premature, so, when Caroline and I started talking about the issues a disruptive environment could cause, it seemed like the pieces of a puzzle started to come together.”
Cano recounts how her sister had challenges with learning growing up. This led the team to research the effects of the NICU noise on neuronal development.
“NICUs can be a surprisingly dangerous auditory environment,” says Daltoso, who works on the device’s software and the company’s business operations. “Infants are exposed to harmful frequencies for more than 12 hours a day, which is equivalent to an adult hearing a fire alarm go off for that same amount of time, and, as you could imagine, that’s quite stressful.”
They found that a loud NICU environment can run the gamut of deleterious effects on an infant, including a higher risk of hearing impairment and deficits in language, attention, and motor function. And, although many complex interconnected factors contribute to a person’s cognitive development, including socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and parents’ education levels, the team uncovered how the quantity and quality of words spoken to an infant in their first three years plays a major role in forming a healthy brain.
“So, our beanie really works to offer auditory protection and parental connection to those infants,” Daltoso says.
“We realized it’s hard for parents to be in the NICU daily due to personal, financial, and professional burdens, so the children are missing out on the positive effects of hearing their parents speak and sing to them. Which is why we developed a mobile application that allows the parents to record songs, stories, or audio messages that can be played back in the beanie.”
Magro says that the Sonura Beanie is equipped with an active filtration system to block out high-frequency environmental noise but allows low-frequency voices and bodily sounds to pass through, with the benefit of more closely mimicking the uterine environment. “This has been shown to be integral to fostering linguistic development for infants,” she says.
In conducting their literature survey, the team also found that health outcomes for infants were improved when they were able to hear their mothers’ voices and heartbeats for 45 minutes, four times a day, prompting them to explore ways to administer audio signals on a similar schedule. With the help of health care professionals, they believe these signals will not disrupt the infants’ sleep and will only be relayed whilst awake.
“Although we haven’t added this feature to the current prototype we’ve been working on this last year, we’re confident we’ll have our final product by the end of the summer,” says Ishiwari, who works on the software and handles the financials.
Boyce, who works on the device’s hardware says their team dynamic is a large part of Sonura’s success. “We’re not just business partners; we’re all really close friends that work well together and have a knack for managing solving problems as they arise,” she says. “Working with this team has been a truly life-changing experience, and I’m so excited to see the impact this project will have on babies’ lives.”
The Sonura team points to support they’ve received from their Penn mentors. They say they are particularly grateful to Brian Halak, a lecturer in the Engineering Entrepreneurship program, who played an instrumental role in guiding the team through navigating the health care space and integrating it with biomedical technology.
“When they asked me about being a mentor, I was super excited to sit down with them, learn more about the product and the problem that they’re trying to approach, and I really loved it,” Halak says.
“It’s great for the patients as the babies may emerge from the NICU with fewer long-term developmental issues, it’s great for the parents because they have the ability to feel a lot more connected to their babies while they’re in NICU, and it also improves the quality of care medical professionals can provide.”
Ishiwari says Halak’s experience with bringing startups into the market space has been incredibly helpful and afforded the team an early opportunity to consider the intricacies of working with regulatory bodies like the FDA and to think about how products in this space are affected by the terms of insurance providers.
“And I think that having mentors at each critical step has allowed us to have a complete feel and look for a product we believe is going to actually make a difference in peoples’ lives,” she says.