Zennea Technologies' team members celebrate their win at SFU's Surrey campus (L-R): Bradey Macmillan, Amar Singh, Rachel Chase, Ryan Therlfall, Nell Du, Oliver Luo (not pictured: Aryan Memar-Zadeh).

Sleep apnea device pitch takes top prize at SFU Opportunity Fest

April 24, 2017

A team of SFU mechatronic systems engineering and business students is developing a device that could help improve the health of millions of sleep apnea sufferers around the world.  

The team of seven students, called Zennea Technologies, won first prize at SFU’s Opportunity Fest on March 23 for their product idea: the world’s smallest device to treat sleep apnea.

More than 100 million people worldwide, including 850,000 Canadians, suffer from the potentially serious disorder, which causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly throughout the night.

Caused by an obstruction to airflow in the back of the throat, sleep apnea sufferers may experience anywhere from five to 100 sleep interruptions every hour.

These interruptions can lead to a variety of health issues ranging from chronic daytime drowsiness and restless sleep, to heart disease and stroke. 

Risk factors include excess weight, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, older age and family history.

“When we were brainstorming ideas, we realized that everyone in the team knew someone who was affected by sleep apnea,” says team member Ryan Threlfall, a mechatronics student.

Statistics support this finding—the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates as many as one in four Canadian adults is at risk of sleep apnea.

The disorder is normally treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device comprising a mask connected with a hose to a ventilator.

“We interviewed more than 100 sleep apnea sufferers in person and online, and noticed that the CPAP machines are incredibly annoying to take travelling, since they need a power outlet to work or an incredibly large battery,” says Threlfall.

“One man we talked to would actually take a car battery with him when he went travelling.”

The team is taking part of the Technology Entrepreneurship at SFU program, a student business incubator that brings together mechatronic systems engineering and business students to create marketable tech products.

During the eight-month project, the team of five mechatronics and two business students aims to address this problem by creating a portable, battery-operated alternative.

The proposed device can be discreetly packed away for travelling or brought on camping trips, where electricity is not readily available.

Currently at the prototype phase, the final device will be unveiled at SFU’s mechatronics capstone event in August 2017.

“We’re deconstructing the traditional CPAP machine to see if there is a way to reduce the scale of every single part,” says Nell Du, a mechatronics student. 

“We want to make everything embedded into the mask and use a smartphone application to control the device.”

The team won the Opportunity Fest Triple Bottom Line prize worth $1,000, which is awarded to the venture that most highly exemplifies a commitment to people, planet and profit. 

Hosted by the Beedie School of Business, the annual Opportunity Fest aims to showcase student innovators and entrepreneurs across the university, celebrating interdisciplinary collaboration and enterprising teamwork.

More than 50 student teams pitched their business ideas to expert industry judges at SFU’s Surrey campus this year, vying for the grand prize.

“Pitching was exciting and nerve-wracking at same time,” says team member Amar Badh, a business student.

“I think our device’s pitch was well-received because we’re solving an actual pain, which will make people’s lives better.”

The team’s project mentors include SFU professors Carolyn Sparrey and Siamak Arzanpour, who specialize in biomedical engineering, Technology Entrepreneurship co-directors Amr Marzouk and Sarah Lubik, and Dr. Robert Comey, a consultant with the University of British Columbia’s sleep disorder program.