Top accolades at the 2023 James Dyson Award

This is the 6th consecutive year that NUS students or graduates have won top prizes in the local edition of the awards

Two exciting innovations that solve real-world problems in a practical way – one developed by a recent NUS graduate and another by a current student – emerged among 48 entries from across six universities in Singapore to clinch the top prizes in this year’s James Dyson Award.

A lightweight vest for open-heart surgery rehabilitation designed by NUS alumnus Mr Siew E Ian was named the 2023 Singapore winner, while an innovative device co-developed by second-year computer engineering student Mr Sparsh to efficiently converts solar-thermal energy into electricity, won the national runner-up.

The annual James Dyson Award is an international design award that aims to inspire budding design engineers. This year, the competition received 1,969 entries from 30 countries.

Auxobrace: A design that stems from the heart

Mr Siew E Ian has had his chest sawed open not once, but twice.

Born with a heart defect, the 24-year-old recent graduate from the Division of Industrial Design (DiD) at the NUS College of Design and Engineering (CDE) first underwent open-heart surgery when he was just two weeks old, and again in 2021.

By his own account, he had to endure a long and painful period of recovery following his most recent procedure, “due to the slow fusion of the sternum bone. Simple movements and activities required assistance from caregivers, and the available solutions proved ineffective.”

But the downtime and discomfort he experienced while convalescing at home was the impetus he needed. “This experience sparked my motivation as a designer to reimagine sternal and cardiac rehabilitation,” he said.

He decided to train his focus in this area of healthcare innovation for his thesis project, and cycled through various prototypes. After several rounds of iteration with surgeons, nurses, and physiotherapists, E Ian developed a model that could expand and contract based on certain forces applied, in effect, redesigning the sternal brace from the ground up.

His efforts paid off.

Auxobrace, an extremely light-weight rehab device that relies on the principles of dynamic compression and ‘particle jamming’, was named as the national winner of the 2023 edition of the James Dyson Awards on 13 Sep 2023. Earlier this year, his invention had also received a patent and the NUS-JTC Medal and Prize.

Ingenious idea sparked by a trip to the supermarket

The sternum, a narrow flat bone in the front of the chest, takes about three to four months to heal post-surgery. Patients typically wear a sternal brace to facilitate the recovery process following their discharge from the hospital. However, conventional braces can be cumbersome. The constant pressure around the chest, from the elastic band, can feel too compressive.

Sweat also tends to pool under the material whenever the conventional brace is worn, especially in Singapore’s humid climate. This is not ideal and could complicate recovery. “Moisture near such big and fresh wounds increases the risk of infection, which could be more harmful than the surgery itself,” E Ian said.

The young designer also observed that “conventional elastic braces rely on the patient's own brute strength,” he said, “and some elderly might find this challenging.” He knew that he wanted potential users to easily adjust the tightness of the brace – perhaps with the push of a button.

The initial idea came to E Ian during a visit to a supermarket. He observed how a loose sack of rice, when vacuum-packed, could be transformed into a solid, rigid slab. Intrigued, he thought about it further, and found himself asking, “How can I apply [this concept] on the human body?”

The seed of that idea germinated. Instead of rice grains, he experimented with lightweight polystyrene beads at first. He discovered that by encapsulating the beads in an airtight bladder made from TPU fabric, he could replicate some of the effects whenever a vacuum was applied. However, he found that the compression was more pronounced on the sides of the chest, which caused greater discomfort.

Further research led him to the field of ‘soft robotics’, which uses flexible materials to mimic the movements of living organisms. He developed 3D-printed cube-like internal structures that can provide more consistent and inward pressure on the sternum.

E Ian brought successive iterations of the product to healthcare professionals for their comments and evaluation. He continued testing various designs on himself too, deploying force resistive sensors to ensure that the maximal pressure applied was within safe limits.

“There is much potential for this technology to break into other areas of rehabilitation and fashion as a whole. Further developments are underway,” said E Ian who will soon be joining NUS as a Design Researcher.

He also credited the University for offering a “secure and stimulating atmosphere that facilitated the exploration and expression of my creative abilities and conceptual thoughts. I am very appreciative for the opportunity to have received mentorship from a distinguished group of educators who have provided invaluable guidance throughout my education in the world of design.”

E Ian is working with experts from NUS and the National University Health System to refine the product for commercialisation.

Thermal Floater: A boost for green energy

NUS student Mr Sparsh, together with his friend, Mr Shivansh Anand, who is from the Indian Institute of Technology, created a unique device that can convert heat energy from the Sun into electricity efficiently. Called Thermal Floater, the device has a hollow modular casing that enables it to float on bodies of water, and is designed to be robust to withstand waves. This frees up a significant amount of land space, especially in densely-populated urban areas like Singapore.

Sparsh, a second-year computer engineering undergraduate in NUS, said that “we were driven to solve the problem of frequent blackouts and unreliable electricity supply in our hometown, which only worsened during lockdowns.” The duo intends to file a patent and seek further funding for research and development efforts.

“NUS has provided me with invaluable opportunities to expand my knowledge and explore my passion for innovation, both as a student and as an inventor,” he said. “My journey at NUS has been nothing short of transformative. I owe a debt of gratitude to my supportive friends, School of Computing, College of Design and Engineering, and the entire college community for nurturing my passion for innovation and guiding me towards the creation of the thermal floater.”

The winners from Singapore will now compete with the national winners from across 30 participating countries. The top 20 international entries – selected by Dyson engineers from around 90 finalists – will be announced in October 2023. From these, one overall international winner, two runners-up, and one sustainability winner will be announced in November.

NUS inventions making their mark at the James Dyson Awards

NUS teams have consistently done the University proud at the James Dyson Awards, clinching the top national prizes almost every year since 2016.

NUS students or graduates were the national winners in 2022, 2021, 20202018, and 2016. In 2021, the NUS inventors of HOPES, a wearable device for glaucoma patients, were the first Singapore team to win the top prize of the international edition of the James Dyson Award.