Population Health

September 30, 2021

Spotlight: Shawn Swanson pursues medical innovations through social entrepreneurship

Image of Shawn SwansonShawn Swanson is a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington College of Engineering and 2021 Population Health Social Entrepreneurship Fellow.

He is also the CEO and co-founder of MedsForAll, a startup that aims to provide accessible and affordable rescue drug autoinjectors to historically underserved populations.

The idea behind MedsForAll stemmed from Swanson’s background and expertise in materials science and engineering.

“I always had been interested in materials since I was a kid,” Swanson said. “This interest led me to study materials science and engineering for my undergraduate and master’s degrees. During my master’s [program], I got involved in Engineering Innovation in Health, which helped me create MedsForAll.”

Engineering Innovation in Health (EIH) is a UW-based program that links health sciences professionals with engineering students to develop innovative solutions to pressing health care needs. The program is open to both undergraduate and graduate students under the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.

While enrolled in an EIH course, Swanson was paired with a physician from Harborview Medical Center. The collaboration examined local access to epinephrine autoinjectors, as the cost of EpiPens, the leading brand of epinephrine autoinjectors, was on the rise.

This experience would ultimately pique Swanson’s interest in the issue of medication affordability and accessibility.

“Doing this research got me thinking, ‘If Harborview can’t afford this, then people in low resource settings can’t either,'” Swanson said.

Between his graduate studies, Swanson traveled to Southeast Asia and witnessed firsthand that his hypothesis held true.

“I found that in places that lacked access to EpiPens, those suffering from allergic reactions would have to be manually injected by a trained professional,” Swanson said. “People in low resource settings would have to wait for someone to come and inject them with epinephrine. So, just because people couldn’t afford it, they were dying. That felt wrong to me.”

Recognizing the severity of this issue, Swanson came up with an idea: separate the drug from the autoinjector to make this life-saving drug affordable and accessible.

To make this possible, Swanson and an interdisciplinary team of collaborators have designed a unique autoinjector that is compatible with medication packaged in a glass ampule. By utilizing the existing infrastructure of the glass ampule, the team has produced an innovative solution that addresses this critical health challenge.

Swanson brought his innovative idea to his EIH course, experimenting with the concept through a course project assignment while completing his master’s degree.

By 2016, MedsForAll was picking up steam. Swanson began working full-time to help grow the startup before returning to the UW in 2019 to further his knowledge on medical device development.

“A big reason why I came back [to the UW] for my Ph.D. was [that] I realized there was a lot I still needed to learn about medical device development,” Swanson said. “In my program, I am learning a lot about the medical device development process, design of experiments [and] clinical studies.”

Swanson also cites his engagement with the EIH program as a significant driving factor for his return to the UW.

“In addition to wanting to learn more about medical device development, I knew I wanted to get involved with EIH,” Swanson said. “EIH feels like home to me. It feels great to be able to help out other medical device projects at the UW.”

As a Ph.D. candidate, Swanson has engaged with the EIH program as a teaching assistant for the same course that helped launch his innovation and is currently the program’s first Ph.D. fellow.

Through his experience with MedsForAll, Swanson knows firsthand the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations.

“[Interdisciplinary collaborations] are huge for my Ph.D. research and my work at MedsForAll,” Swanson said. “These collaborations have really accelerated the project … providing insight into the different sides of the health challenges we are addressing.”

In addition to the EIH program, MedsForAll also received support from CoMotion, the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship and other UW-based social entrepreneurship supporters.

For his Ph.D. research, Swanson has been working with Professor Eric Seibel in the UW Human Photonics Laboratory on a biomedical innovation, UnTape.

UnTape is a medical device that seeks to reduce pain and Medical Adhesive-Related Skin Injuries (MARSI) from medical tape removal. The research has received support from CoMotion, as well as WE-REACH.

Swanson credits this experience with teaching him more about medical device development and clinical studies. He intends to commercialize UnTape upon completing his Ph.D.

“This team is what has truly taught me the value of interdisciplinary collaborations, as we have mechanical engineering, materials science, chemistry and nurses actively involved with our team,” Swanson said. “Having experts in each critical area of the project has significantly accelerated development.”

Appreciating the assistance he received from the robust innovation network at the UW, Swanson felt compelled to support other social entrepreneurs by participating in the Population Health Social Entrepreneurship Fellows program.

“MedsForAll is fundamentally a social entrepreneurship project, relating to population health [by] trying to make a life-saving device accessible and affordable,” Swanson said.

The fellowship program is supported by the Population Health Initiative, in partnership with the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, CoMotion and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

The program pairs graduate students from various disciplinary backgrounds with UW-based innovations to explore how best to deploy social enterprise models.

For the summer 2021 cohort, Swanson was paired with the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic (ELC), an innovative clinic dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The clinic is directed by Jennifer S. Fan, associate professor of law at the UW School of Law. The ELC explores the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations by joining legal and business knowledge to offer critical early-stage counseling to entrepreneurs.

“The ELC directly helps people who really need those services and don’t have the means to get them,” Swanson said. “I had previously worked with Professor Fan when I was building my startup. I could not pass up the opportunity to work with her to help expand the ELC’s services.”

As a Population Health Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, Swanson was tasked with exploring how to expand the clinic’s reach across Washington State through a sustainable and equitable social enterprise model.

“There are so many people who could utilize free legal services,” Swanson explained. “My work involves focusing on how we can support minority-owned business ventures to help expand the clinic.”

Although Swanson’s primary work relates to the ELC, he notes how the fellowship has nurtured interdisciplinary collaborations between the fellows and program leadership to support all five of this year’s projects.

“It’s been a tight-knit cohort and really fun to work with the other fellows and mentors,” Swanson said. “It’s amazing how well qualified they all are. Whenever I have a question, they’ll give an answer that just blows my mind — it’s been an amazing experience.”

In addition to his work as a Population Health Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, Swanson remains actively involved in the EIH program and is dedicated to the continued growth and expansion of MedsForAll and UnTape.