Students Combine Gaming and Glucose Monitoring

For the diabetic, religious monitoring of glucose is essential to slowing the progress of the disease. But glucose meters have hardly advanced at all in recent decades, capitalizing on none of the ongoing tech revolutions. Marek Novak, a graduate student at the Czech Technical University in Prague, decided to fix that. His credit-card sized, smartphone-controlled, Bluetooth-enabled X.Glu meter, is a revolution of its own for the hundreds of millions of diabetics worldwide.

Novak was working for a medical supply company when he first recognized the need for a new glucose meter. “The majority of glucose meters are given to the user for free—they don’t have Bluetooth or technology to transfer data,” he says. “That is something we would like to offer all people.”

Novak had purchased his own CNC machine several years earlier, which “allowed me to create complete prototypes in-house for a couple of tens of dollars,” he says. But the design and mechanical engineering aspects proved to be the easy part. Compared to the things he’d worked on before—like incubators for prematurely born babies—a glucose monitor turned out to be a wildly different beast. “Glucose monitoring is different,” he says. “It’s not just an electrical sensor. It combines biochemistry with electronics. The main challenge was understanding the chemistry of how the blood interacts with the enzymes and other chemicals on the strip.”

In 2015 Novak met his teammates, Tomas Pikous, and Barbora Suchanova at the University’s Media Lab, where he was working on an IoT project. Pikous suggested that they enter Microsoft’s Imagine Cup.

For their entry, the team decided to gear their monitor towards children. This was an area where current technology had left some huge gaps. Regular monitoring of glucose levels are crucial for the diabetic patient. But children, who may not understand the ramifications of missing a measurement, need an extra incentive.

“We designed motivational games into the app,” says Novak. “For example, we created a game where the diabetic child gets strawberry points if the measurement is done correctly.” The child can also earn points by guessing if their glucose level was low, normal, or high. “Diabetics can feel that,” says Novak, “And we wanted to teach that to diabetic children.” When the child has earned enough strawberry points they can buy merchandise.

The look of the glucose meter is sleek, colorful, and small. But the design of the app was just as crucial. Current apps related to glucose monitoring on the App Store or Google play often have an image of a needle. Novak created a more playful logo, and made every aspect child-friendly. “We are not calling the measurement ‘the measurement,’ we are calling it ‘strawberry time,’ ” says Novak. “Technical advancements are one thing, but if you don’t design the product with psychology in mind, it just doesn’t make sense.”

By moving the data, whether it’s a measurement or strawberry time, to the cloud, the system moves the point of care away from doctors and to the families. Doctors can’t be involved with a patient’s day to day glucose monitoring. But families can react immediately if something is wrong.

Novak and his team won the Imagine Cup in 2017. How did he beat out his competitors? “I guess the CNC machine was the main star,” says Novak. “Thanks to it, I was able to develop prototypes that almost looked like a product.” He also had a well-developed business plan. Where other teams used components that would bring the cost of their products into the thousands of dollars, Novak worked hard to keep his glucose monitor as inexpensive as possible.  

Now, with the design, hardware, and coding complete, Novak is looking for investors to produce the product. If he finds the funds, he believes he can go to market in a year’s time. As soon as that happens, millions of diabetics will be able to keep themselves healthy with greater efficiency and fun. 
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.