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Madisyn Dudley and her teammates were two weeks into D’Amore-McKim School of Business’s popular product-design course when they realized they were solving the wrong problem.   

“After our initial interviews, we shifted our focus to giving COVID patients more time before they have to go to the last-resort option of a ventilator,” she says.

Discoveries like this energize Dudley, who’s pursuing an engineering degree at Northeastern as well as a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University in her hometown. But it’s the possibility of helping others that truly motivates her. As an activist who’s worked with nonprofits on issues such as conflict resolution, voter rights, and youth mentorship, Dudley applies a social-impact lens to her love of innovation.   

“I want to take my technical knowledge and create products that benefit others,” she says.   

After redefining the goal of their project, Dudley’s team continued the course’s intense, 10-week sprint through every stage of product development. They interviewed two dozen more experts, including ICU nurses and doctors, respiratory therapists, and biomedical engineers. They learned that COVID-19 can lower the oxygen circulating in the blood, harming lungs’ ability to push air in and out and increasing the chances of needing a ventilator. They were told that laying patients prone and stomach-down can help reverse this effect and improve respiration.

The front-end research also “taught us a lot about empathy—putting ourselves in patients’ shoes and trying to understand what they need and not what we assume they need,” she says.

Using iterative brainstorming tools with names like “round robin” and “mashup,” Dudley’s team hit on a solution: a bed extension similar in design to a massage table. It would allow COVID-19 patients to lie comfortably face-down and breathe into a BiPaP machine, a far less invasive device than a ventilator that rests over the nose and moves oxygen into patients’ airways.

The team turned its sketches into a more sophisticated prototype and went back to the medical experts to refine it. It was March by then and the pandemic had worsened, prompting Northeastern to close. Dudley’s team shifted to virtual collaboration, pushing one another to stay motivated and on-track.

Madisyn Dudley, COE’21.

Their work culminated in a 20-minute presentation to Professor Stephen Golden—the course’s creator and a longtime entrepreneur—and six medical professionals, who peppered the group with questions but reacted positively to the idea. “It was nerve-wracking, but they gave us great feedback to consider and encouragement to keep going,” Dudley says.

The team has continued improving the prototype and hopes to launch it as a product. Dudley is learning more about innovation as she co-ops remotely from Atlanta for an African firm that provides renewable energy to commercial businesses in Somaliland. The co-op and product-design course confirmed for her that she wants to focus her career on creating useful, sustainable products for communities that need them most.   

“I want to work at the intersection between activism and technology,” she says.

Dudley and her classmates shared their classroom experience with our community during an Instagram takeover this past summer. Check it out here.