Two engineering students win big with entrepreneurial innovation

The support surface invented by two UAB undergraduate engineering students will help change how nurses and patient care teams can provide care for patients in the hospital.
Written by Tehreem Khan
Media contact: Savannah Koplon

Upstarts StreamThe support surface invented by two UAB undergraduate engineering students will help change how nurses and patient care teams can provide care for patients in the hospital.
NOTE: This photo was not taken on UAB's campus.
Two juniors majoring in biomedical engineering in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Engineering won the Alabama Upstarts University Challenge with their entrepreneurial project. The duo was awarded $5,000 to advance the innovation of Mallemat, a malleable mattress for pressure injuries that automates movement for pressure redistribution so nurses do not have to lift patients. 

The Alabama Upstarts Competition, broadcast across the state by TV networks, provides a platform for startups to pitch their ideas to Alabama entrepreneur judges for a chance to win seed money from real investors. Representing UAB, Sam Wilcox and Megan Saalwaechter competed against peers from the University of Alabama, Auburn University and Birmingham Southern College, ultimately taking first place. 

For Wilcox and Saalwaechter, the support and mentorship they received from UAB professors across many disciplines are what helped set up their success in winning Alabama Upstarts and for the future of Mallemat.

UAB collaboration and mentorship

Sam Wilcox of Dallas, Texas, and Megan Saalwaechter of Huntsville, Alabama, created a company called PneumaBot Systems to advance Mallemat.

While they had a thorough understanding of the engineering needs to develop Mallemat, they needed to better understand business concepts to better reach the customer and how to build a business model. Wilcox and Saalwaechter participated in the UAB I-Corps program that leads entrepreneurial teams through an evidence-based process to explore and evaluate the market potential of their ideas and provides up to $2,500 in funding to support startup activities. 

“Through their participation in I-Corps, I was able to work with Sam and Megan firsthand and direct them to additional resources, like Alabama Upstarts, to help take their idea to the next level,” said Molly Wasko, Ph.D., associate dean for Research and director of the I-Corps program. “One of our greatest resources is our Entrepreneurship program, so connecting the team to Dr. Murphy really helped them with the practical experience of pitching their business idea.”

The Collat School of BusinessEntrepreneurship program mentored Wilcox and Saalwaechter in how to pitch their idea to investors and provided knowledge about entrepreneurial activity and socioeconomic development.

Learn how to start your UAB Honors College journey here.

“Sam and Megan are extremely talented,” said Patrick Murphy, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Entrepreneurship program and Goodrich Endowed Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “They have a great venture project, and they rose to the challenge and pitched it at a world-class level.”

Wilcox and Saalwaechter were introduced to UAB’s Entrepreneurship curriculum, where they learned about how to confidently talk to investors, sell their product, and make their idea appealing and one worth investing in and seeing to fruition.

“The cross-pollination and the collaborative spirit of UAB’s campus yields an innovative environment for students to pursue their ideas and succeed at them,” Wilcox said. “We are so thankful for the incredible people and mentors at UAB who prepared us.”

The money from Alabama Upstarts will be used to facilitate the creation of this mattress and develop the company to change the landscape of accessible care for patients. The second step is to create a medical-grade prototype and partner with an engineering firm to access the machines needed to create the product, test the product and make improvements where needed.  

Wilcox and Saalwaechter credit their victory on Alabama Upstarts to making Mallemat a reality sooner rather than later. With the seed money they won, their timeline has progressed, and they are now able to work on a provisional patent and application. 

Mallemat’s genesis, UAB supported innovation

The idea was sparked when they visited Solution Studios during their UAB Honors College’s clinical innovation class taught by Joel Berry, Ph.D.

“As part of the Science and Technology Honors Program, we went into Solution Studios to look for a problem that sounds interesting to us,” Saalwaechter said. “We met people in the hospital to work closely with developing the solution to that problem. This is an engineering class, so you come up with an innovative way to solve the problem and/or make it easier for that area.”

“We are thankful for the incredible people and mentors at UAB who prepared us to confidently talk with investors to make our idea appealing and award-winning,” Wilcox said.

UAB Honors College offers biomedical and other engineering students an opportunity to enroll in an independent study class, allowing students to use class time to devote to research projects that interest them. For Wilcox and Saalwaechter, Mallemat became a reality through this class as it allowed them to focus on developing their product.

“The goal of independent research study classes is for students to devote their time and energy to research advancement and maximize students’ potential as innovators and entrepreneurs,” said Shannon Blanton, Ph.D., dean of the UAB Honors College. 

With proximity to UAB’s medical campus, students like Wilcox and Saalwaechter can witness problems firsthand to create effective solutions, another factor they say helps contribute to their existing and future successes.

During their next semesters at UAB, these young entrepreneurs plan to apply for additional funding to transform their idea into a tangible product.

In reflection of their product and how far they have come, both Wilcox and Saalwaechter are grateful to have resources and mentorship opportunities from all corners of campus at their disposal, something they hope other students remember as they have big ideas and plans.

“Being on a campus like UAB where we have access to, not only a fantastic academic campus, but a medical institution really helps set our vision apart,” Saalwaechter said. “Having the support of both the School of Engineering and the Collat School of Business to help us is truly incredible, and we’re really grateful for all who have supported us.”