A newly announced winner of this year's James Dyson Award is Undu: a slim, wearable and reusable heat pack to help relieve the pain of monthly menstrual cramps, designed by four students from the University of Toronto. We chatted with Undu team members Charlie Katrycz and Katherine Porter about their invention—and their win. —Noa Nichol
Hi Undu team! Tell us a bit about yourselves to start.
Charlie: I am currently completing my PhD at the University of Toronto. I’ve dedicated my research help solve human problems using the architectures of nature. I grew up in spending summers in the Algonquin wilderness, and was struck by the elegant structures used by nature to solve problems. Taking inspiration from the way branching shapes of antlers on deer, moose and caribou are used to cool the body down, I worked to find branching processes in the lab that could also help heat and cool the human body. Kitchen countertop experiments led me to build a machine that is now used in making Undu wearable heat packets.
Katherine: I didn’t get Charlie’s knack for kitchen countertop experiments but I’ve always been a maker. My brother can vouch for the number of all-nighters I accidently pulled in high school getting swept up in drawing, sewing, building, making. I circled around the vocation of design a little before becoming formally trained in it, but spent the majority of my grad school years thinking about the invisible ways gender gets both included or excluded from our design decisions.
The answer may seem obvious to many of us women, but where did the concept for a slim, wearable, and reusable heat pack to help relieve the pain of monthly menstrual cramps originate for you?
Charlie: Six years ago I was an independent investigator working out of my parent’s basement. I was working on an invention that makes thin, soft, wearable parcels for delivering fluid and heat to the body. At the time, menstrual pain was not an application I had considered. Instead I was working on cooling the body, the way astronaut suits do. The idea was to make a suit that could alleviate the heat-related symptoms of multiple sclerosis, or to treat burn wounds. It was only by meeting the members of the Undu team that the problem of menstrual pain relief was identified. Once we understood the problem through surveying over 100 people on menstrual pain, and discovered how little had been done in the market to address this problem, we all realized what a great opportunity we had to make a difference for the many people around the world who deal with this pain on a regular basis.
Katherine: Seeing Charlie’s technology set off a lightbulb for me and it felt simple: I saw the technology as having massive potential and knew it hadn’t yet found the right problem. What better than to use it for a problem that’s everywhere, but invisible to many? It just felt right.
How does Undu stack up against other menstrual pain solutions out there (also, what is the improvement over a traditional hot water bottle or heating pad)?
Charlie: First off, when it comes to wearable pain relief, there are very few products that have been designed for menstrual pain. The hot water bottle has demonstrated for millions of people the value of heat to relieve their pain symptoms. However, it is bulky and not wearable. We tried stuffing it down our pants, further illustrating the impractical nature of a hot water bottle if you want to leave the house. Our product takes what works in the traditional hot water bottle, and combines it with a wholly new wearable form factor that makes it invisible and comfortable to wear.
Katherine: We’re lucky, too, for Charlie’s enduring dedication to his research and vision. His persistence through the threat of ambiguous or unsuccessful outcomes mean that he (and we, in some ways) now hold a patent on the process and that Undu could not exist without. We’re very grateful to Charlie’s parents, and their basement! As a result Undu is uniquely able to produce the softest, most wearable pain relief on the market!
Tell us a little more about the tech in Undu.
Charlie: Inspired by natural shapes, like coral, lungs, lichen and caribou antlers, our technology injects branched channels into soft silicone rubber. This process leverages the branching pathways of fluids to build a natural shape for holding hot or cold liquids and applying them directly to the body. To get a bit more technical, the fluid injection process is self-organizing. We use the creativity of fluids to build structure. This allows us to flexibly change the shape and sizes of our product to fit the body better. We control the simple outline of the shape, and the fluid goes to work, building an elaborate maze of pathways, creating structure where it is needed.
Katherine: Fortunately the team is composed of four outdoor enthusiasts, so we were all thrilled to contribute to the development and application of a manufacturing technology that was rooted in the processes of the natural world. We should all be working on heading that way.
How does it feel to have won the James Dyson Award? How did you find out and, importantly, how did you celebrate?
Charlie: It is the greatest affirmation of our work to have won this prize. Having spent nearly a decade developing the manufacturing process that makes Undu pain relief soft, wearable and point specific, we feel that finally the technology is ready to address a massive problem experienced by billions of people globally. In equal measure to the technology, identifying and designing for menstrual pain relief has been a revelation. To find a problem that has gone so terribly unaddressed for so long, that is a natural fit with our manufacturing process, is kismet. We are grateful to the James Dyson Award for recognizing the two-fold innovation of our product.
Katherine: This past week, two of our founders, Graham and Robin, got married! The JDA news came just before their wedding. When they return from their getaway in the Ontario wilderness, we will be sure to celebrate over a meal and live music.