Senior Design Project Becomes Budding Business for Bronen ’20
By Olivia Drake, Written Communications Specialist
Photos by Christopher LaRosa, Media Producer
Jeremy Bronen ’20 (ENG) knows firsthand the struggles of living with discomfort. For the past decade, the 26-year-old, who majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Connecticut, has suffered from chronic back pain after sustaining three separate injuries, which for brief periods of time, had rendered him unable to walk.
Bronen, like 11.1% percent of adults in the United States with mobility issues, makes adjustments to his lifestyle by altering his standing, sitting, and sleeping positions for comfort. But when nature calls, toileting can be among the most agonizing struggles of daily living.
“When pain is associated with going to the bathroom, it’s not just hard on you physically, but emotionally,” Bronen said.
Bronen is hoping to alleviate the pain and exertion of bathroom breaks with his invention, the SedMed Toilet Lift Assist. The ergonomically designed tool helps older adults and those with physical disabilities get a lift on and off the latrine.
The Toilet Lift Assist is the first product to be launched by Bronen’s Woodbridge, Connecticut-based startup company—SedMed Inc. Bronen founded the business while a senior at UConn and he made his first sale this May.
“My hope is that the Toilet Lift Assist not only alleviates physical discomfort but also empowers individuals with disabilities and older adults to reclaim their independence in the bathroom,” he said.
A BUDDING ENGINEER AND ENTREPRENEUR
Bronen developed an interest in engineering early on, with a subtle push of parental encouragement. In his hometown of Woodbridge, Bronen and his father would devote their leisure time to creating, crafting, and constructing multiple mechanical projects in the family’s workshop. Together, the father-son duo manufactured a wooden chariot, a lap desk, and an oversized wooden Swiss watch, among other projects.
“I cherish those memories of building and fixing things with my dad,” Bronen said. “I was always fascinated with the creativity and innovation of new things.”
Bronen found more innovation inspiration exploring new products on the global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. He developed a fascination with start-up businesses, and this led to an internship—the first of many—at the Yale School of Medicine. There, he 3D printed patient brains with intracranial electrodes for epilepsy surgery planning.
So, when it came time to apply for colleges, Bronen was immediately drawn to UConn’s School of Engineering. “All things pointed me to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering,” he said.
BUILDING A PARTNERSHIP
Three years into his studies at UConn, and knowing he had a knack for both engineering and entrepreneurship, Bronen reached out to Jennifer Mathieu, executive director of Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI). CCEI, a center within the UConn School of Business, offers business model coaching, training, financial support, and a summer fellowship to help students launch their entrepreneurial ventures.
Mathieu suggested he attend CCEI’s Get Seeded program as a guest judge, and that is where Bronen met graduate student Timothy Krupski ’15 (ENG), MBA ’21, MENG ’21. At the time, Krupski was hoping to find a solution to help his wheelchair-bound and close family friend “Grandma Grace” with bathroom independence. Following a recent stroke, Grace was struggling to use the toilet without assistance from family and friends.
At Get Seeded, Krupski—who was pursing his master’s in business administration and master’s in engineering at the time—was hoping to sponsor a Senior Design Project with the expectation of creating a product that could help Grace and others suffering from similar tasks of daily living. The Center for Disease Control reports that almost 15 percent of all bathroom injuries occur while using the toilet, and for people over the age of 85—toilet slips and falls account for 50 percent of all injuries.
Bronen was up for the challenge and the duo became not only senior design teammates but business partners.
“There were two characteristics I identified in Jeremy that I knew could set a course for a future partnership in our entrepreneurial journeys,” Krupski said. “First, Jeremy is resilient! He has a ‘never say never’ attitude which, combined with a strong work ethic, made him a valuable asset as a student and even better business partner. Second, Jeremy remains humble in his approach, he can accept constructive criticism while firmly advocating for his beliefs on propelling the business to the next level.”
Bronen and Krupski took full advantage of what the CCEI had to offer. Bronen first led his Senior Design team through CCEI’s Accelerate UConn program (UConn’s NSF I-Corps site) to conduct customer discovery. The team was then selected in a competitive pool of candidates for the CCEI’s Summer Fellowship Program (UConn’s startup accelerator) in 2020. And ultimately, the toilet lift assist team was selected in the top five to participate in the Wolff New Venture Competition.
The programs provided the team with a solid business acumen needed to launch a startup while allowing Bronen and Krupski to solidify their partnership. As a result, SedMed was born.
“I still remember the first meeting I had with Jeremy and how impressed I was with his maturity and thoughtfulness,” Mathieu said. “I have helped to launch and grow more than 500 startup teams and small business ventures over the last six years. Jeremy stands out at one of the very best entrepreneurs that I have had the privilege to support. He has always been incredibly coachable, curious about how things work, passionate, and willing to take risks. I am so proud of all he has accomplished with SedMed and I am grateful to be a mentor to support him throughout his entrepreneurial journey.”
After only one year of development, Bronen and advisor Krupski debuted their electric toilet lift prototype at UConn’s Senior Design Demonstration Day in 2020. Although he presented virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project took third place, which left Bronen encouraged and eager to do more.
For the next three years, he incessantly morphed the lift assist to meet the needs of his future clients.
“We went through the wringer of changing the product based on customer discovery. We’d take the product to stakeholders, investors, manufactures, and ask, ‘What do you think?’ We did that 1,000 times, and I swear by that. It’s so important to keep your ear close to the ground and feel out what other people are thinking,” Bronen said.
Initially, Bronen engineered an electrical lift, but discovered the wire could become a tripping hazard. He explored alternative powering methods, and ultimately chose to use gas springs as a mechanism for lowering and lifting.
Now, it’s the only non-electric toilet lift on the market that mounts onto a toilet and provides effective help for anyone weighing between 70 and 275 pounds.
“There’s no battery, there’s no motor. The gas springs are like something you’d see in a car trunk or screen door that lets you slowly lower, or slowly close,” Bronen explained. “It’s designed to lift 80 percent of your body weight and take the work out of it for you.”
In addition to altering the powering device, Bronen spent countless hours scrutinizing every component on the lift assist and asking experts how he could make parts more natural feeling.
“There’s so much I didn’t know. For instance, while it’s easy to run my finger across most surfaces without any problem, older adults have fragile skin that can tear easily. Things like that needed to be taken into consideration,” he said. “Every small detail has been methodically and exhaustively looked over. I’m constantly asking myself, ‘how can I make it safe, comfortable, and ergonomic as possible?’”
The project recently caught the attention of Associate Dean Daniel Burkey, Castleman Term Professor in Engineering Innovation, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
“As a dean, I’m very proud to hear that Jeremy’s business, which he started as a student, is taking off,” Burkey said. “His entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering commitment to improving lives exemplify the transformative power of engineering innovation. His efforts will resonate far beyond the realms of mobility and healthcare, inspiring us all to pursue empathy-driven solutions that make a profound difference in the world.”
HELPING THE HELPERS
While the lift assist can help individuals reduce the risk of falls and injuries inside their own homes, Bronen hopes hospice and health care workers—who help patients get on and off the toilet—also will benefit from the product. The lift assist can prevent workers from obtaining serious injuries on the job, which may lead to workers compensation claims, lost labor, and institutional liability, Bronen said.
“Health care workers and health care institutions are also at the forefront of our vision of a safer, easier work environment,” he said.
GIVING BACK TO THE SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING
Three years have passed since Bronen and his sponsor Krupski debuted their initial toilet lift during UConn’s Senior Design Demonstration Day.
And on April 28, Bronen returned to the Gampel Pavilion sponsoring his own team of undergraduates.
“Being a sponsor is a good way to pay it forward,” said Bronen, who’s advising four students majoring in mechanical engineering (ME) and computer science and engineering (CSE). The team is designing a “smart toilet,” a tool that tracks the frequency of usage on the toilet and reports any falls to 9-1-1.
“We made good progress so far, and it’s been a fun project. We’re getting a good jump on product development,” Bronen said.
Two-and-a-half years after starting their SedMed partnership, Krupski decided to part ways with the business. The new father handed the full reigns over to Bronen last January, and has been busy raising his now 7-month-old son.
Now that SedMed is awaiting a shipment of 250 products and making his first sales, Bronen’s goal is to grow the business’s team. He recently hired an engineer is and presently seeking a sales manager and other team members. This summer, Bronen hopes to recruit a UConn student to fulfill the role of SedMed’s first marketing intern and continue networking with like-minded engineers and entrepreneurs.
Connecticut Small Business Development Center and CTSBDC Business Advisor Denise Whitford helped SedMed to secure over $1 million in funding, including $931,000 raised in a seed round, led by Connecticut Innovations, along with an additional $115,000 in grant funding from organizations like CTNext, FORGE, the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, UConn IQ, and the UConn School of Engineering.
“For now, we’re slowing extending our reach, but our long-term vision is for SedMed to become a [brand] standard for people who struggle with daily living.”