Congratulations to NSERC CREATE Training in Global Biomedical Technology Research and Innovation program trainee, Ala Eldin Omer who has completed his training in the program and PhD at the University of Waterloo. Ala Eldin Omer has been an active student throughout his academic career at the University of Waterloo. He was born and raised in Sudan where he studied his undergraduate degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering with specialisation in Communication Engineering at the University of Khartoum. He went on to study Electrical Engineering from the American University of Sharjah (AUS) in the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to this he worked as a Research and Development Communication Engineer with the Telecommunication Research Centre (TRC) in Sudan. He was also awarded a two-year Graduate Assistantship from the Department of Electrical Engineering at AUS.
Ala Eldin defined the turning point in his academic career as the decision he made to study his PhD at the University of Waterloo, with the Centre for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems (CIARS), Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
He attributes his success to the solid and broad academic background he has in the theoretical foundation of electrical engineering. For his thesis, he wanted to go beyond research, he wanted to work on solving a real life problem.
I wanted to focus my work on a subject that would allow me to contribute more than just a couple of publications but something that would have a huge impact on people’s lives.
We find that Waterloo students bring quite a refined set of skills from coding to design with cutting-edge technological languages and tools. Those are skills we are looking for. Beyond that they bring a lot of intangible skills like innovativeness, curiosity, flexibility and a great sense of ownership of their work.
As a teenager, he watched his father and other diabetic patients go through the endless, painful process of pricking themselves to test their blood glucose levels. This experience served as inspiration for him to challenge himself by pursuing the kind of research that transcended traditional disciplines and has a unique place in the field because it encompasses a wide range of ideas, concepts and technologies.
Ala Eldin decided to make an innovation that would make the process of blood glucose monitoring continuous, painless and inexpensive. Ala Eldin discussed how current innovations are invasive, non-continuous, expensive and painful and to remedy this, he chose to work on his PhD thesis: ‘Non-Invasive Blood Glucose Monitoring Using Electromagnetic Sensors’ which has achieved this and so much more.
Through the support of his supervisors, Professors Kankar Bhattacharya, George Shaker and the late Safieddin Safavi-Naeini, his work has been well accepted in the health and science fields and has won him numerous accolades including the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society Doctoral Research Grant, NSERC CREATE fellowship, Erasmus+ mobility grant and University of Waterloo Faculty of Engineering (FOE) awards.
What makes Ala Eldin’s device unique is that it utilises microwave and millimetre wave sensors coupled with algorithms that seamlessly monitor blood glucose levels without sampling any fluid outside of the body or implanting a sensor inside the body. Conventionally, finger-pricking has been used to detect blood glucose levels however this process is non-continuous, painful, expensive and requires a significant amount of planning and organisation. Ala Eldin has developed a device that is low cost, portable and non-invasive. Currently, the entire sensing system is the size of an adult’s palm (image attached below).
THE ROAD TO COMMERCIALIZATION
Ala Eldin has started looking at the business side of his device and has entered competitions like Concept by Velocity and the Lab2Market. He has also engaged with mentors and advisors in commercialization to formulate the problem as a promising start-up and business. The customer discovery calls he did with patients gave him good insights on their needs and how he can improve and develop his device. He was also happy to learn that they were excited to see a product like this coming in the market, something that could truly make a difference in their lives.
Commercialising the device by the end of his PhD was his goal but this has been a challenge due to many reasons that include clinical validation and regulation by health authorities and competition in the market from tech companies like Apple. The passing of his supervisor altered the course of research slightly but Ala Eldin has managed to stay the course and work hard on completing his research.
The outcomes of his research have been published in 20+ journals/conferences and he has received 10+ international/local awards and media commendations. His work continues to be recognised to have massive potential to benefit the diabetes community. In addition to his commendations, Ala Eldin also received the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and the President’s Graduate Award.
He also took part in the NASA Tech Briefs: Create the future design contest, where he received an honourable mention and was recognised as part of the Top 5 most innovative ideas in the medical field. Ala Eldin has also been interviewed for advances in his research by CTV news and BioWorld MedTech magazine.
NSERC CREATE TRAINING PROGRAM
Ala Eldin benefited greatly from workshops in commercialization, needs-finding and assessment, regulatory aspects and concept evaluation and refinement. These modules gave him more than 50 hours of training and helped him in starting the commercialization process for his device. His biggest learning outcomes were from the entrepreneurship and commercialization seminars as they strongly aligned with his vision of taking his research and making it into a solution for a real-world problem.
The CREATE program was an interesting opportunity and experience that opened doors for collaboration for me and boosted my interpersonal skills.
In addition, it allowed him to explore topics like ethics, design development and intellectual property. These workshops gave him the opportunity to network and discuss the content with CREATE fellows who were working on different fields that were outside his comfort zone. During his time in the program, Ala Eldin also served as representative for graduate trainees and guided the strategic direction of the program.
Ala Eldin’s biggest learning outcome from the program:
Always say yes to opportunity and welcome collaboration with different people from different fields because they expose you to learning new skills and lead to a fruitful experience.
The CREATE program also gave him the opportunity to take part in an international exchange at the Sorbonne University in Paris, France in 2019 in the Electronics and Electromagnetism research lab. This lab specialises in the use of low frequency electromagnetic waves in sensors. During his time there, he worked on fabricating sensors and doing preliminary testing. Although research was the core of his exchange, Ala Eldin was also involved in other activities.
Sorbonne allowed him to engage more with students and develop his leadership skills through supervising undergraduate and graduate students who were working on relevant work. He was also involved in organising seminars and conferences like the Biomedical and Engineering National Conference (JETSAN) and International Conference on the Computation of Electromagnetic Fields (COMPUMAG).
Apart from work at the university, Ala Eldin took some time to visit the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel tower and Normandy with his supervisors and made great memories and friendships.