UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences


Student COVID-19 Recovery Challenge

In June 2020, we challenged students to solve issues caused by the pandemic, helping them to boost their entrepreneurial skills and win a share of a £2,000 prize fund.

The challenge was set by Dr Gavin Jell and Dr Amy Li. Proposals had to be deliverable in six months on a budget of £50,000. Students had access to expert speakers from within and outside of UCL and experienced business mentors, while Santander donated a prize fund of £2,000. 255 UCL students took part, generating 34 ideas.

Winner: Covicycle

Recycle / reuse personal protective equipment to combat waste.

Second: Traverse

Use of AI wristbands for sensitive contact tracing within hospitals.

Third: ViraLynx

Health and wellbeing education platform for secondary schools.

Best pitch: Mask4Days

Face cover made from bioplastic and novel antiviral technology.

Winners: Covicycle

Recycle and reuse personal protective equipment (PPE) to combat waste and shortages.

covicycle team

The team

  • Sachi Shah (MSci Biochemistry)
  • Jiarui Li (BSc Pharmacology)
  • Nishika Jain (BSc Biological Sciences)
  • Priyanka Rachel Peres (BSc Biological Sciences) 

The judges felt the idea was "feasible, sustainable and would have significant impact". Priyanka told us about the plans for Covicycle after the competition.

How the team came together

Nishika and I were friends. We met Sachi and Jiarui through the WorldLabs platform, where we could connect with people online who liked our idea. We were missing out on the social aspect of university due to Covid, so the Challenge was a good way of making friends.

Covicycle: the idea

We wanted to solve two problems:

  • PPE waste devastating marine ecosystems.
  • PPE shortages, especially early in the pandemic. Public sanitation workers were being infected because they had not been given proper protection. Frontline hospital workers also had to treat people without PPE.

We thought: if you can collect, recycle, and sanitise the PPE, you can solve these problems.

MediaCentral Widget Placeholderhttps://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/player/jJEHh7gD

How did you refine your idea?

We listened to experts and had discussions with mentors to work out the kinks in our idea. It was eye-opening because we had no business experience.

We spoke to academics from backgrounds in business, medicine, and law. They put us in contact with helpful people outside of UCL. We also spoke to people from UCL's start-up incubator, the Hatchery, who had started their own businesses.

What skills did you build or develop?

The experience of business was so useful. Everyone should learn how a company runs. You can have a great idea, but it must be feasible. I worked on the budget and learned how hard it is for a business to break even.

Plans for Covicycle after the competition?

As the pandemic has progressed, our idea has changed a lot. We have contacted upcycling companies who could turn PPE waste into stationery equipment or bricks for construction. It's a new field, and there are only a handful of companies globally doing this.

We work well as a team and have become very good friends. If Covicycle doesn't continue, we can come up with more ideas.

Would you recommend competitions to other students?

It's such a great experience. You make new friends. You explore science beyond your course. Plus, you could make a positive impact in the world, and that's the best part. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. We made a million mistakes! Setting up a business is just that - making mistakes, correcting them, and working it into a better idea.

Second: Traverse

Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and wristbands for contact tracing within hospitals.

Traverse team

The team

  • Advaith Veturi (BSc Applied Medical Sciences) 
  • Deena Seennapen (BSc Applied Medical Sciences)
  • Ashild Kummen (BSc Psychology)

Advaith told us about the team’s experience in the competition.

How the team came together

My degree was in Applied Medical Sciences, and I am now studying for a master’s in artificial intelligence. I had read about AI being used for medicine, then saw how it was being used for Covid. I knew I wanted to work on a technology-based idea.

I messaged people to see if they would participate. Deena was keen to join in. Ashild was interested in the same area of research, so she joined the team. It was great working with them both.

Traverse: the idea

Despite PPE, etc, we found out that up to a fifth of COVID-19 hospital patients contracted the virus while being treated in hospital for another illness. (This was before hospitals had enforced the procedures they have now.) We thought people wouldn’t want to come to hospital in fear of catching Covid.

Our idea was for everyone in the hospital to wear a wristband with a radio frequency tag that would connect with sensors in different zones of the hospital. It would track the movement of people around the hospital, and AI would determine who had been in contact with each other. Lots of countries now have contact tracing apps. However, our idea takes contact tracing to another level of sensitivity for hospitals.

How did you refine your idea?

Refining it was the hardest part. Initially, we thought we’d cover one hospital. Once we realised the set-up costs of equipment and training hospital staff, we knew that was too broad. Instead, we focused on one zone of the hospital. Experts from UCL helped us refine our idea.

What skills did you build or develop?

It gave me an insight into actual jobs. I thought computer programming would be just writing code, but I learned that you must simplify and explain computer science too. It gave me an understanding of project workflow and finance. I also improved my teamworking skills by coordinating people and discussing how to work through an idea.

What advice would you give to other students?

Don’t be shy about participating, even if you don’t have an idea. It is useful to have a diverse team from different fields. Extra-curricular strengths are useful too. We had to make a three-minute presentation, and Ash did amazing work on the logo design and the video pitch. You must capitalise on each other's strengths.

Third: ViraLynx

A health and wellbeing education platform to inform secondary school pupils about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, such as STIs.

viralynx logo

The team

  • Maria Caluianu (BSc Medical Sciences)
  • Angie Chu (BSc Medical Sciences)
  • Milda Folkmanaite (BSc Medical Sciences)

Maria told us about the importance of market research in refining a plan.

ViraLynx: the idea

Initially, we thought about an online community for people suffering from long Covid. Instead, we looked at education. Many students weren’t getting the right level of education due to lockdowns. At the same time, domestic violence and child abuse were increasing.

We wanted an app for teachers and students with links to helplines and counselling services. We also wanted a module to teach students about infectious disease, including sexually transmitted diseases. Existing sex-ed pamphlets are cringeworthy and embarrassing. We designed our materials in pastel colours to rid the embarrassment.

Our unique selling point, and most important for us, was to make students more biologically responsible citizens. One silver lining of this pandemic could be that people learn about their responsibility in stopping infectious diseases from spreading.

How did you refine your idea?

At first, we wanted to provide a broad platform for university students, younger children, and the public. Once we realised this was too broad, we concentrated on the group that was most-affected - secondary school students.

We did market research and contacted relevant organisations. UCL researchers of science education and sex education led us to the charity, School of Sexuality Education (formerly Sexplain), which provides relationships and sex education for young people. I also conducted a survey on The Student Room website. We tried to get opinions from researchers, teaching organisations and students.

What skills did you build or develop?

We learned about education. We found a UCL lecture series which was very useful. We also had tutorial sessions. We learned how to conduct a feasibility study and how companies had come up with and developed their start-up ideas.

We also had to learn how to get a complex idea across in an extremely short period of time - our video could only be three minutes long! Presenting our work in this way was new to us. It was also the first time we'd created animations.

Would you recommend competitions to other students?

Go for it! It takes place after exams are over, and it’s a great way to spend the summer. It’s good fun, and you can include it on your CV.

Best pitch: Mask4Days

An ergonomic, transparent face covering made from bioplastic and novel antiviral technology, based on the cicada insect's wing.

mask4days team

The team

  • Yulia Lazareva (BSc Biomedical Sciences)
  • Marcus Yong (MSc Pharmacology)

Yulia told us what it was like to pitch to the 'Dragons' Den’ of experts.
Mask4days: the idea

Marcus and I didn’t know each other before the competition, but we both had ideas for face coverings. Marcus was interested in the environmental impact of single-use PPE and wanted to create a reusable mask made from sustainable materials. I explored the ergonomic design of a mask, thinking about the physical appearance and using innovative transparent materials. We combined our ideas to propose a new design for a filtering facepiece respirator (FFR).

Ours was revolutionary in terms of materials. We planned to use an albumen or starch-based bioplastic, which was both transparent and biodegradable. The mask would be antiviral due to nanoprotrusions and have a superhydrophobic surface. Droplets would bounce off the superhydrophobic surface so it would not need constant cleaning. Transparency would aid social interactions, and an elastomeric lining would ensure a good fit.

Obviously, we did a lot of research into the materials. We modelled the nanoprotrusions of the mask on the self-cleaning wing of a cicada. I found a paper on a bioplastics company and contacted them to gather costs and work on timescales - our idea had to be viable.


What help did you receive from UCL?

There were talks and panel discussions in the first week of the competition on the effects of COVID-19. These were delivered by expert guest speakers. Mentors provided sessions where we discussed specific elements of product design and idea generation. There was also a workshop on pitching.

What skills did you build or develop?

Pitching was completely new to me, so I definitely developed pitching skills! Once the final ideas were submitted, ten were shortlisted for the finals. We then went into what was like the TV show ‘Dragons’ Den’, where we were questioned by the judges. It was quite daunting being questioned by people who had studied COVID-19 extensively. 

The competition also taught me to consider not just the science but the economic and other societal repercussions of the Covid pandemic. 

Would you recommend competitions to other students?

Go for it! It can seem daunting, but it was worth it. I wish it could have lasted longer than three weeks.

It was very inspiring to see the innovation, commitment, and ability of students" - Dr Gavin Jell, Programme Lead, BSc Medical Innovation and Enterprise, and Competition Co-organiser.


Students in discussion at a table

Student experience

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gaia greco

BSc Medical Innovation and Enterprise

This unique course closes the gap between business and medicine, training new innovators and entrepreneurs in medical technology.