Life after winning IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition

Nate Macabuag presenting his project to the 2018 judging panel.

By Nate Macabuag, 2018 winner of IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition. 

Hey, I’m Nate, co-founder of Mitt, our prosthetic wearables start-up. We’re tackling the barriers that come with limb loss by building accessible, easy-to-use prosthetic limbs for people across the world. 

We were lucky enough to win the Institute of Global Health Innovation’s Student Challenges Competition in 2018, as well as their audience choice award, during my final year at Imperial. The prize money towards our project totalled £6,000 – which was mind-blowing. This would turn out to kick-start one heck of a year.

Later that same week back in March we were also competing in a couple more competitions. This was the last week of term and I had exams to sit, so I rescheduled them. And good job I did: we won £11,000 in Imperial’s Venture Catalyst Challenge on the Wednesday, and £5,000 in the College’s Ideas to Impact Challenge on the Friday (after a coursework submission that morning). It didn’t stop there. The following Monday we were awarded a grant for £2,600 from the Douglas Bader Foundation; a month or so later we then won £3,000 from the Imperial College Union ACT Now Showcase.

Facing a dilemma

Mitt – our little fledgeling seed of an idea had raised a combined total of £28,000 since the start of the year. And now I had a choice to make:

  • Take the job offer I had previously agreed to before this kicked off, try to work on Mitt part-time, and likely watch it slowly fade away without the time and effort needed to keep it going.
  • Take a leap of faith, live on £6,000 for the year and put the remaining £22,000 into the company to hit its milestones, and give Mitt a fighting chance at becoming a real thing.

When put like that, the choice was clear. I called up the firm that was expecting me to start working in a couple of months and told them that I had to follow my heart. This was late spring.

By the start of summer I had finished my final exams and taken a two-week break in Ireland with my beautiful girlfriend, before getting back to work: Full-time on Mitt with my co-founder, Ben Lakey, or ‘The Great Lakes’ as he is sometimes affectionately known.

A woman trialing the prosthetic arm.
A participant from our pilot trial.

We moved into our first office – graciously gifted desk space in the Imperial College Hackspace. By August our prototype prosthetic arm was beta test-ready, and we started our first month-long product pilot. September came and we filed our first patent on the design. A week later we partnered with the coolest surgeon in the world, Dr Aidan Roche, to run our clinical validation.

Then, we had an invite to China to present at the World Economic Forum with the Imperial Enterprise Lab. We met incredible, influential, inspiring people; ate the BEST food, and our hotel burnt down (seriously – but that’s a story for a different time). No sooner than we landed we received another invite to present in Japan. Ben went to this one, and he had the time of his life.

In October we were accepted onto the London and Partners Business Growth program, a mentoring and training scheme run by the Mayor of London. And we found out just before Christmas that we won a £50,000 grant from the Royal Academy of Engineering!

Building confidence

It’s been an incredible year. We’ve met inspiring people, and watched Mitt grow from strength to strength. But we all have to start somewhere. And for us it was in that lecture hall, sweating through my shirt as I got ready to pitch in front of the IGHI judges.

That evening we didn’t just win prize money; we won confidence. And that confidence in our small idea is all it took for us to run with it. We’re not done yet (not by a long shot), but we’re a long way from the students we were just a year ago. So what I’m trying to say is thank you to the IGHI team for their support, (their money), and their vote of confidence.

So if you’re reading this, sitting on the fence about an idea you could pursue, please do it. And hey, if it’s global health-related: apply to the IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition. You won’t regret it.Nate watching a video on a screen with a child

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