HEBA Medical, LLC: Research, Friendship, and a Joint Honors Thesis

July 20, 2021
Marcos and Dom in the mountains

Written by Isabelle Snyder, UHP Communications Intern

UHP students Marcos Zachary and Dominic Marticorena are recent graduates of the University of Minnesota, where they both studied biomedical engineering. For their senior Honors Thesis, they decided to team up for a joint project, creating an app as part of their digital health emphasis.

Ironically enough, the backstory of this dynamic duo did not begin in Minnesota, but at the 2019 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Anaheim, CA. Dominic presented the work he had done that summer at Washington University – St. Louis, and Marcos spoke about his work at Johns Hopkins. At the conference, they bumped into each other, started talking, and hit it off particularly well because of their similar backgrounds.

“While we were getting to know each other, Dom shared a bit about his background and I shared a bit about mine,” Marcos explained. “I actually wasn’t born in the US; I was born in Egypt and then lived most of my life in Libya until I was 11 – when the war started – and then me and my family came to America. But I didn’t speak English until I was 11, and I learned it by spending a lot of time in the library as a kid. Dom and I both came from parts of the world that didn’t really have the sciences.”

Back on the Twin Cities campus, both Marcos and Dominic worked in Professor Matthew Johnson’s research lab — the Neuromodulation Research and Technology Laboratory — which focuses on innovating neuromodulation technologies to improve quality of life for people with neurological disorders. At the time, Johnson’s lab was collecting data about patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) — measuring their gait, seeing how they walk, and attempting to analyze patients using video in conjunction with motion tracking software. Several issues surfaced during these clinical trials, the most significant being the “guinea pig” stigma – wherein a patient feels uncomfortable being the subject of an experiment. Other obstacles included a limited time frame, a very lengthy and subjective evaluation process, and difficulties with the motion tracking software.

Late in the summer of 2020, following this experience working in the Neuromodulation Lab, Dominic learned about the 2020 Johns Hopkins Medical Hackathon. The point of the three-day hackathon was to create some sort of application that accomplishes a specific goal. Dominic asked Marcos and another friend to form a team and present an idea. While brainstorming potential projects, the team focused in on one of the three tracks of the medical hackathon: personalized medicine using data driven methods. Dominic mentioned his summer lab work evaluating PD patients and the issues that had surfaced during the experience, and they asked themselves, “Can we make something that monitors Parkinson’s disease passively?” After experiencing issues with the “guinea pig” stigma, Marcos and Dom saw passive data collection as a potential solution to this problem. 

With emerging technology like AI and machine learning, one can use simple Inertial Motion Unit (IMU) sensors to gain a lot of information. The team dug into this idea and tried to figure out if they could devise a simple method to monitor neurodegenerative diseases in general and do so passively. They found existing apps designed to monitor Parkinson’s disease using IMU, but none that did so passively; users of these apps had to go on their phones, choose to do an assessment, and walk around to be analyzed. The team's goal became clear:  for the hackathon, they made a prototype of an app that would survey neurodegenerative diseases passively.

After the Hackathon, Marcos and Dominic conducted market research – analyzing what was already out there, how novel their idea actually was, and what customer base it would serve. Then Marcos presented at the American Dream Makers Entrepreneurial Conference, which, they explained, was kind of like Shark Tank – although Marcos hadn’t realized that at the time. An astronaut with deep interest in neurodegenerative diseases reached out to Zachary asking about the project, and they also received financial, equity, and investing advice from a few key advisors. The strong response inspired the pair to work hard to bring their concept to life.

From there, it was a no brainer. The idea was clearly well-received and supported, so Marcos and Dominic decided to boost their time commitment from a 3-day hackathon to a year-long Honors Thesis. They also made the decision to do the thesis together; since they started the project as a team, they wanted to move forward as a team.

Marcos and Dominic worked on developing the idea further and got funding for a provisional patent. Earlier this year, they received notice that their idea was novel, along with a full report of possible competitors and what part of the market they have. The patent is moving forward and they own it. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the duo decided they should take things a step further and filed for an LLC. They called it HEBA Medical, LLC – “heba” being the word for “gift” in Arabic.

“We don’t have a website yet because that requires a lot of funding,” Marcos Zachary noted. “But we are working on a grant right now which should help us with that financing. So it’s just a matter of time now until we move it forward. We’re working with the Chief Technology Officer of MediView, Mina Fahim, who’s a good friend of mine and who’s been like a mentor. He’s in love with the idea and wants to work with us on pushing it forward, so he’s been a great help as well.”

Marcos Zachary will be pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and Dominic Marticorena will be pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. They are optimistic about being able to continue working together on HEBA Medical, LLC. The pair are proof that, when given the space to think, collaborate, and work creatively, undergraduates can do great things. We're proud of Marcos and Dom for their commitment to this work, and we can't wait to see what's next for them!