UAF senior design project goes to market

Engineering capstone senior design projects are a fun and technical way for students to collaborate and use the skills they have learned to solve a real-world problem. Often the product goes no further than the classroom. Abigail Leigh and a team of fellow UAF mechanical engineering students — Josiah Alverts and Conner Owen —used their senior project to work with a local aviation and mountaineering safety equipment designer, Ray Huot, to design a better and more mobile inflatable emergency backboard.

“We believed that this project was more likely to be completed or have significant progress versus the other project we are looking at which required a lot of skills that we didn’t necessarily have — particularly more in like [the] computer and electronic sort of engineering spectrum,” said Leigh.

A team of UAF mechanical engineering students used their senior project to design a better and more mobile inflatable emergency backboard. Photo courtesy of Amanda Byrd.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Byrd.
A team of UAF mechanical engineering students used their senior project to design a better and more mobile inflatable emergency backboard.

And, it didn’t hurt that all the members on the senior design team were avid outdoors people, often venturing into the backcountry, away from cell phone signals and immediate assistance.

The team was working with a material called “Drop Stitch,” a fabric used for inflatable products like stand-up paddle boards. It can be welded together to create a highly rigid inflated product. The team’s goal was to develop  a rigid inflatable board suitable for stabilizing an injured patient in the backcountry. With a concept and inflation device prototyped for their senior design presentation, they, with Huot, realized the product could see a commercial market.

They took their project beyond the classroom and participated in the UAF National Science Foundation I-Corps site program. This program helps to accelerate academic research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization by providing mentorship and funding the customer discovery process.

Customer discovery is a keystone element of developing a startup business. Innovators research and speak to potential customers about their needs, and rather than finding a customer or market for a product they have developed, they can use the needs and ideas learned from interviews to tweak their product, or pivot completely in a different direction. The process can be conducted at any stage during the innovation process.

Customer discovery led the team to industries that currently use emergency backboards for transporting patients. This turned out to be an important step.

University Fire Department personnel noted that the current backboards for transporting patients are extremely rigid. Patients sometimes are strapped on the backboards for a long time before getting to a hospital, and the boards can be very uncomfortable.

“Our goal in creating a perfectly rigid board is actually not essential,” said Leigh. “The end goal of a spinal board isn’t to keep your whole body rigid, it’s just to stabilize your spine.”

The firefighters introduced the team to the board they currently use called a vacuum mattress. The system is more comfortable, “but it is humongous so they can’t actually bring it with them in a lot of circumstances, because [the firefighter] said it takes up like a three-by-three foot cube. It’s huge,” added Leigh.

This vacuum mattress is like a beanbag that is inflated around the patient, giving more support through a whole-body-conforming system that is comfortable for hours.

The team found that they needed to go back to their prototype. Instead of creating a perfectly rigid board, they needed to take the body conforming vacuum mattress idea and make it more mobile and therefore useful to a wider variety of customers.

“I was speaking with someone and they said the most important thing in engineering is that when you’re creating a product that it’s able to do more than one thing,” said Leigh. “So, we started off with this product, just hoping to have a regular spinal board and for it to be compact. But I am coming to realize that we can even adapt the board in a way, where it’s not just a normal spinal board, it’s kind of more like the vacuum mattress that firefighters and police are leaning towards.”

The team has taken a break from designing the system and has been focusing their time on interviewing people about the emergency equipment they already have, and if they don’t use it, trying to find out why not. The reasons given so far have been limited space and weight, so the team is now refocusing their efforts on understanding the needs of the market.

The team is thankful for mentorship throughout the entire process. They received support and advice from UAF mechanical engineering faculty Rorik Peterson during the senior design project phase. Once a month they check in with Huot to give updates on their progress and the issues they have encountered.

Huot has a vested interest in the final product. He researched and purchased the fabric for the team and has been very supportive.

“It was really incredible to have his help throughout the whole project and even past the project when we were working with I-Corps, it was very nice,” added Leigh.

Leigh and her team were supported through the UAF Center ICE Seed Fund for their senior design project and they continued to work on this in their I-Corps discovery process. They connected with a range of potential stakeholders and users of their technology to discover their needs and the market opportunity and segments for their backboard.

“Gaining information on the pains of the end user and testing their value proposition, Abigail and her team gained beneficial feedback to help them and entrepreneur Huot on ideating upon their design to provide the best product for the market need,” said Center ICE’s Peter Webley.

Leigh has graduated from UAF now, and while still part of the inflatable backboard team, she is putting her education and people skills to work as an engineer for innovative design and engineering firm Disher in Zeeland, Michigan.

One of Leigh’s biggest takeaways from her engineering education and I-Corps process has been communication. “It doesn’t really matter how smart you are or what you make if you aren’t able to accurately express these ideas to other people.”

Learn more about the Center ICE NSF I-Corps program at