UCF medical students took first place at this year’s Florida Blue Healthcare Innovation Challenge, which gathers interdisciplinary college students from across the state to pitch business ideas to improve healthcare.

Third-year students Rachel Chapman, Hannah Brown and Sanjan Kumar won the award and $10,000 over 11 other finalist teams for their pitch of EyeSentry — an early glaucoma detection tool.

Over 100 students applied for the competition, with the top teams presenting a full pitch at University of South Florida Research Park. Most of the finalists were engineering students. UCF’s winners were the only medical school students to make the finals and said their healthcare training gave them an advantage.

“We know the market because we know physicians, what they like and what they would be willing to utilize and incorporate into the clinical setting,” says Chapman.

Glaucoma is considered a “silent disease” because it usually starts with mild peripheral vision loss and usually isn’t diagnosed and treated until it severely impacts vision.  The medical school innovators said that by using a fast, easy-to-use screening tool, primary care doctors could catch and treat glaucoma earlier.

Frank Nunez, program planner for the USF Nault Center for Entrepreneurship, who helped run the innovation event, said the UCF students set themselves apart in the competition by zeroing in on the right healthcare problem to solve.

“They highlighted how there are millions of people who have a degenerative eye disease and don’t even know it,” he says. “The detection methods we have right now are expensive and haven’t changed in decades, and that’s where her product can come in.”

More than the $10,000 cash prize, the UCF team says the experience taught them how to bring an idea from concept to pitching and gave them an opportunity to network with investors and other healthcare innovators.

“One of the benefits of the competition is they provide you with a mentor in the business sector, who will coach you and help refine your decks, practice your pitch and get feedback,” Chapman says.

The competition is focused on ideation, with students judged on the potential for this idea to address a problem that exists in healthcare. Chapman, who is interested in specializing in ophthalmology when she graduates, is conducting research on the product. Next year, the innovation group has asked her to serve as a physician mentor for other would-be entrepreneurs.

For future students who hope to bring their innovations to the competition, Nunez had this advice.

“Understand the problem and how the problem impacting people’s lives,” he says. “If you see a place where there’s been no innovation that’s costing patients and practitioners a lot of money that’s what I would really hit home on.”

Applications for next year’s event will open toward the end of 2024, but students are encouraged to begin researching and planning their ideas now.