Founder Stories

Columbia Students Are Tackling Vaccine Delivery with VaxFlask

The Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship team had the chance to connect and reflect with the grand prize winners of Fall 2020’s Design Challenge Finale, Team Immunogeniuses (Bhoomika Kumar, Columbia College ’23, Erin Liang Columbia Engineering ’23 and Min Tsou Columbia Engineering ’23). Their work called VaxFlask addresses the shortage of sterile glass vials in the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. After contacting and learning from industry experts, Team Immunogeniuses created a multi-dose design that only uses 40% of glass compared to traditional vials. This doubles the capacity to deploy COVID-19 vaccines and allows for rapid scalability. 

Below are some highlights of the conversation.

 

Can you explain more about the technology behind VaxFlask? 

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic depends on the development and large scale distribution of an effective vaccine for over 6 billion people. However, the biggest obstacle to rapid large-scale distribution of a vaccine is the shortage of borosilicate (more resistant to thermal shock) glass that traditionally makes up vaccine vials. Our project, VaxFlask, addresses the logistical issues of scaling up vaccine production. Our design uses significantly less borosilicate glass than traditional vials, while holding more doses per vial and costing half as much as traditional vials. It can be easily manufactured on a large-scale and seamlessly incorporated into existing vial filling and packaging schemes.

 

How did VaxFlask form a team? 

Erin Liang: Bhoomika and I actually worked on the BME Art of Engineering project together, so we were already kind of used to working on a virtual, research-based project. We both met Min during this design challenge. Despite the virtual modality, we all became very close through the late night calls of brainstorming, pivoting our project focus numerous times and having to research a totally different facet of vaccine manufacturing. 

 

Could you speak to how resources at Columbia fostered your interest in entrepreneurship and the ideas behind VaxFlask?

Bhoomika Kumar: We were very inspired by the winners of previous Columbia Engineering Design Challenges. One project that we were particularly influenced by was Highlight (now a product in the company Kinnos) from the Columbia Ebola Design Challenge back in 2014. By reading about the founders’ journey, we learned the importance of focusing on the problem and learning about the existing solutions and gaps that exist, from the point of view of various different stakeholders, and designing a simple, low-cost, rapidly-deployable solution. 

 

After winning this competition, what do you hope to do moving forward? 

Min Tsou: We are continuing to speak with medical glass vial manufacturing companies about our solution to further gauge their interest as the COVID-19 vaccine situation continues to evolve. We’re also shifting our focus to global health markets in hope of alleviating vital shortage issues associated with vaccine distribution. Additionally, we’re planning to work with vial manufacturers to create prototypes and conduct initial laboratories tests. 

At the finale, Min shared how the challenge allowed her to see how much a positive impact engineers can have on society. In particular, it was through collaboration with people from various fields, in which “[t]here were so many impactful proposals from all the design challenges, with so many students looking to pursue their projects further-it was truly inspiring. Participating in the challenge had taught us the importance of always starting with the problem in mind. Building a viable solution for anything involves thoroughly understanding the pain-points of all stakeholders and identifying the gap with currently existing solutions to address the problem.” 

 

About the Design Challenge

In Fall 2020, Columbia Engineering capped off the Summer Design Challenges with a Grand Finale of 10 student teams pitching live to a panel of judges. Contestants tackled various issues over the summer, ranging from problems related to transit, climate change, vaccines, and living in a post-COVID-19 world. Design at Columbia’s community of students, faculty, and staff embraced the art of making change and the School’s vision: Engineering for Humanity.

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