Imperial College London

Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal for pioneering engineer

by

Esther Rodriguez Villegas

Professor Esther Rodriguez Villegas has been honoured for her contribution to the field of wearable medical electronics.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has announced the winners of its 2020 medals and awards. Esther is one of four engineers to receive the prestigious Silver Medal, for her outstanding — and commercially successful — innovations. 

The success Esther has had, and the prospects for her companies, exemplify the entrepreneurial journey that I would like to see many of our academics achieve. Professor Nigel Brandon Dean, Faculty of Engineering


Through her pioneering techniques in low-power integrated circuit design, Esther has created wearable devices for the diagnosis and management of respiratory conditions. Her ultra-low-power systems have also been used in miniature brain monitoring devices that improve the welfare of animals in medical research.

Esther founded medical device companies Acurable and TainiTec to market this technology.

Her breakthroughs in low-power circuits have enabled Esther to create networks for highly accurate monitoring of physiological signals. She has focused on respiratory and brain conditions, modelling the physiological processes behind diseases, the type of user, and the environment, with a vision to create wearable devices that not only monitored medical conditions but also integrated diagnostic processing.

“It is immensely gratifying and humbling to be recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering for doing something I love and which matters so much to me. To be able to translate scientific discoveries to real world medical devices is something that I have been devoted to for many years, and I am thankful to my students, colleagues, funders and partners for helping make my vision and contributions possible.” — Professor Esther Rodriguez Villegas

Life-changing technology

Woman putting on AcuPebble devic
The non-invasive AcuPebble sensor sticks to a patient's skin, and records the sounds generated by their respiratory and cardiac functions. The signals are transferred wirelessly to a mobile device, and then uploaded to a secure cloud platform.

The AcuPebble sensor is the first wearable medical device that can accurately diagnose and manage respiratory conditions at home. It records the patient’s respiratory acoustic signals and then applies signal treatment algorithms to diagnose and manage conditions such as sleep apnoea, epilepsy, whooping cough, asthma and COPD.

Its readings are seven times more accurate than current sleep apnoea solutions, with automated diagnosis and drastically-reduced misdiagnosis. The device is non-invasive and can be used with no training, allowing home use without specialist assistance or hospital visits, which significantly lowers overall costs.  

Wireless mice

TaiNi device on a human fingertipThe TaiNi wireless low-power device, designed for use on mice, won an international award for animal welfare. It pushes the boundaries of low power electronics in terms of its size, weight, battery life and signal bandwidth.

The device weighs around 1.5g, and is able to provide 16-channels of continuous brain monitoring for over three days. The welfare benefits include reduced handling of the animals — and the associated stress — due to its long battery life, and its wireless operation and low weight provide the mice with significantly more freedom of movement and behaviour than heavier tethered systems.

Impact and vision

“I’m enormously pleased at this recognition given to Professor Rodriguez Villegas," commented Professor Tim Green, who made the nomination. "Esther has pioneered a technique that solved a challenge in power-efficiency of signal processing in integrated circuit design which others had struggled with for decades."

"She is driven to do this because of the importance of the application in therapeutics and has invested a lot of time in understanding the opportunities and difficulties in those applications. Her perseverance in following a long term vision, coupled with her technical expertise, is now creating very impressive results.”

Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Nigel Brandon, said: "Professor Rodriguez Villegas is an outstanding member of our Faculty of Engineering. She is passionate is about her research and her teaching, both in pursing academic excellence and in creating meaningful impact from her work."

"I have been impressed with the time and energy she devotes to understanding the physiology of the conditions she works on, so that she can tackle the medical engineering system as a whole. The invited talks and keynote addresses Esther has given to patient advocacy groups, investors and digital health initiatives are helping to shape thinking outside her engineering field.”


The Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal was established in 1994 to recognise an outstanding personal contribution to British engineering that has resulted in successful market exploitation.  

Reporter

Jane Horrell

Jane Horrell
Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6263
Email: j.horrell@imperial.ac.uk

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