When Katherine Kawecki was studying industrial design at UNSW, she was given a “capstone project” in her final year – and the result has won her both national and international acclaim.

A capstone project involves students tackling a real-world challenge of their choice and using their skills and capabilities to find a solution to it. It’s effectively a bridge between study and one’s entry into industry.

An industrial design student, Kawecki decided to tackle asthma management. It’s a condition that affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide – including Kawecki herself – and one where she believed she could make a real difference.

This week, the 22-year old was named as one of two international runners-up in the prestigious James Dyson Award -- which came with a prize of $9850 -- for her Respia asthma management solution.

“I chose asthma because it’s been under-addressed in terms of product solutions to help manage it,” she said in an interview with Information Age.

“There are a lot of emergency vapour machines which are really great but they are more about preparing for an attack rather than preventing one.

“I wanted my approach to managing asthma to be about preventing an attack and getting behavioural change in how the user listens to their body, how they’re feeling, and then really noticing when they have signs of inflammation so they can manage that and medicate accordingly.”

The result of the year-long project was the Respia, which consists of a bluetooth-enabled smart inhaler, a wearable haptic device that can be concealed under clothing, and docking station that communicates wirelessly with a phone app.

“The wearable device provides live haptic feedback and suggestions to help the user stick to their personal asthma plan,” she said in project notes.

“This adhesive patch sits on the skin similar to a stethoscope and monitors changes in the upper respiratory tract. The patch does this through piezoelectric sensing picking up wheeze frequencies, flux in inspiration/expiration ratio etc.

“The use of algorithms can distinguish between a wheeze and an external noise.”

Kawecki said she has received a lot of feedback about the design from asthmatics wanting to buy it.

“I’ve had people on the Asthma Australia website asking where they can buy this product and I’ve had people message me their stories which are really touching on how this product could help them,” she said.

Respia has also won bank of other awards. It was a finalist in the Young Australian Design Award and won the Red Dot Design Concept Award this year.

“There’s a huge stigma around asthma, that it’s uncool,” she said.

“I wanted to change that. I made Respia especially look more like a lifestyle product rather than a medical one because I wanted people to feel empowered by using this product and for them to have an interesting talking point rather than their inhaler look like a sign of illness.”

Respia is still a concept; there are models for the inhaler and wearable, but there is not yet a full working prototype of the system.

“At this stage we don’t have a working prototype but we have all the technology and people to get it to that stage,” Kawecki said.

“It’s also a huge challenge in funding a project like this. That’s the next step towards making Respia into a reality.

“I’d appreciate hearing from possible investors or companies who feel like they could help me take Respia to market.”

If it does get to market, Kawecki believes it could change the way asthmatics and specialists manage the condition.

“A lot of people under-estimate the severity of their condition. They’re told they have severe asthma but because they feel ok today they don’t take their medication. A lot of respiratory specialists told me this was a trend,” she said.

A system like the Respia could aid this by keeping track of when people take medication and the type of medication they take.

It can then alert the sufferer to a forgotten dose, either through haptic feedback to the wearable, or by putting something on the smartphone screen.

With consent, data could also be shared with specialists at certain intervals so they could keep track of how asthma medication was being used.

Kawecki is in her first year in the industry after graduating from UNSW. Like at university she’s hoping to work on a diverse range of projects.

“I like to remain open when it comes to taking on new projects,” she said.