For the first time, MIT's Catalyst Fellowship welcomes undergraduates to participate in healthcare needs identification through a PKG IAP program.

Karie Shen | The Tech

For MIT undergraduates, the Independent Activities Period (IAP) might involve a restful month at home, a research internship, or an ice skating class for physical education requirements. This year, a brand-new opportunity fell into the lap of a few students: Catalyst, a program at MIT geared towards accelerating health innovation.

Typically, the people who participate in Catalyst—known as Fellows—already have full-time careers as physicians, researchers, professors, engineers, or business leaders and work on Catalyst alongside their day jobs. In January 2024, Catalyst welcomed five undergraduate students to participate through a new IAP offering from the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center.

Amie Kitjasateanphun ’27, one of the five PKG scholars, was initially unsure about joining the program as it was not clinical work, like she had initially envisioned partaking in as a pre-medical student. Being part of Catalyst quickly changed her mind, and she continued to work with the other fellows throughout the semester. “Having these research skills are valuable,” she stated in an interview with The Tech. “I was also interested in exploring more about medical devices and innovation.”

Every January, a new cohort of Catalyst fellows begins a six-month needs identification process involving brainstorming issues, researching, interviewing stakeholders, pitching to faculty, and re-evaluating. After this first phase, the fellows begin to develop their solutions, which can be physical products or intangible solutions. According to their website, around 50% of projects advance to commercial development, compared to MIT's overall 15% average.

Martha Gray PhD '86 (from the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology, or HST program, in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics, or MEMP), director of MIT linQ, the umbrella initiative of Catalyst and other biomedical innovation programs, stated in an interview with The Tech that “needs identification” is a common feature of many innovation programs, but it is a matter of “degree and emphasis.” Rather than coming in to create a startup or even create a solution, the first six months are completely dedicated to defining an unmet need in the healthcare sector. According to Gray, the starting point at Catalyst is never about determining whether there is a market or what price a technology should be set at. “At MIT, we're proud of how well we solve problems,” Gray states, “but that really depends on making sure that the problem is actually worth solving.” This is a principle that drives Catalyst fellows. 

Gha Young Lee, a fellow and an HST MD-PhD candidate, stated in an interview with The Tech, “I thought I was going to go in and start solutioning something very early on. That's what a lot of people expect from innovation programs, and it was the opposite. We spend so much time being very sure that this is a real need.”

Lee, Kitjasateanphun, and the other fellows spend much of their time researching and conducting stakeholder interviews, such as with medical specialists who work with a particular patient population or chief science officers at medical device companies. They also meet with Catalyst mentors, which include clinical practitioners, entrepreneurs and businesspeople, and MIT professors.

Not every idea, however, is viable, and there are inevitably dead ends. “It's a very iterative process,” Kitjasateanphun stated, reflecting on a cycle of trying things out, realizing they don’t work, and going back to the drawing board. “There's a lot that you learn each time that you go through that process.”

“It does force you to be nimble in your mind,” Gray states, as it is hard for people to let go of an idea they are passionate about when the data points in a different direction. “But in retrospect, people are glad they did it, because then they land on something, and then we can reflect a little bit more dispassionately about pivots along the way.”

Nancy Steele, a mentor of Catalyst with a background in business development in biopharmaceuticals at Pfizer, emphasized in an interview with The Tech how critical it is to prove that there is a need, that the idea would be “welcomed and even enthusiastically greeted by the realities of a hospital, a physician's office, or a patient's home.” In the healthcare innovation sector, Steele stated, “The battlefield is littered with well-intentioned products and services and digital apps. There was nothing wrong with the idea, it's just that there wasn't really a strongly felt need to replace what you're already doing.” Rather, the Catalyst program stresses thoroughly verifying a need in the field before attempting to create a solution.

Lee states that while the iterations can be frustrating at times, “my perspective is that if this happened now, then if we had just gone ahead and made solutions for it, it would have happened anyway. So it's a very good idea to deep dive earlier, instead of realizing later that we spent all the time for something that might not have a market.”

Lee shared that the fellows who are physicians, medical students, or nurses often draw from their patient experiences to come up with gaps in areas such as pacemakers, lung biopsies, and PTSD. For example, one of the problems she is investigating involves aspiration pneumonia, a problem she witnessed in post-stroke dysphagia patients during her clinical rotations. Dysphagia, or the inability to swallow, can lead to large amounts of food being inhaled, which can cause lung infections. It happens “quite frequently,” Lee stated, but “we just accept that there's dysphagia.” It was “very frustrating and heartbreaking to see because a lot of people pass from having aspiration pneumonia.”

A first-year undergraduate, Kitjasateanphun shared that “it was a little bit scary because the fellows will be talking about this doctor stuff, and I don't really know what's going on sometimes.” However, by asking fundamental questions about how certain processes or devices worked, the PKG scholars challenged what these seasoned practitioners knew and believed. “We provided a fresh perspective and were able to really pinpoint some problems that they hadn't really thought about, because when they're so immersed in the field, they kind of think there's no other way to do this.”

Lee shared this sentiment. “We underestimate how much people can know as undergrads. I think the whole point of this is that we don't care what your profession is, we want you to have ideas that might not be in your immediate field. And that was pretty much proven.”

Gray, Whitaker Professor in Biomedical Engineering, and of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS), and a core faculty member of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), shares that this diversity of experiences from the fellows is purposeful and extremely valued in the program. “I just simply don't think you can assume that one particular expertise is going to carry the day in any meaningful problem,” Gray stated. “The challenge is, how do you bring those together? Our philosophy is, then, it's better to get everybody in there from the start.” IMES is HST's home at MIT.

Bringing in undergraduates was another step further in this direction, when previously Lee was the only trainee in a cohort of seasoned professionals. “We are all treated equally in the group,” Kitjasateanphun stated. “We can get a little bit tunnel-visioned in what we know. You can go so much farther by collaborating with other people, being very open minded, and questioning the world around you.”

Gray, an HST student in the 80s, states that at the time, the notion of bringing together doctors and engineers was “the coolest idea ever.” Today, MIT has a much larger footprint in the medical space than in the 80s, but still, many opportunities to have real-world impact are missed due to the granting infrastructure, for example. People enter the field doing research to advance human health and because they want to have an impact, but she noted that “deploying that knowledge in a way that adds value is another step.” 

In developing Catalyst, “our hypothesis was, if we did much more up front to figure out what [a solution] would look like if it were to be deployed in the real world, and then use that to guide strategic decision-making,” then people would be able to make an impact from their research. “That's really what Catalyst is all about. It's about keeping a lens on the long-term goal.”

As a fellow, Lee feels that Catalyst is the perfect medium to supplement her full-time endeavors in translational research and medicine with an innovator's sense of being able to reach patients. “In order to have that step forward, you need to have a good idea. But you also need to have the business skills to be able to translate that. Catalyst was the significant piece that closes the loop.”

She stated, “With the toolset that I've acquired, I can be a lifelong innovator.”

*Originally published in The Tech