An international team of student engineers from different universities across the UK, the US and China has won a global engineering competition with an elegant and practical idea to empower women in developing countries by providing cheap sanitary pads made from recycled clothing.

The Empads concept was developed by Juncheng Shen (University of Nottingham Ningbo, China), Amrit Anup Menon (Heriot-Watt University, UK), Angela Peter (Oklahoma State University, US), Ellenor Witton (Heriot-Watt University, UK), Zixi Hong (Wuhan University, China) and Travis Kelley (University of Iowa, US), to address the challenge that 43 million menstruating women in India cannot afford to buy feminine hygiene products at the current market price.

Meanwhile, millions of tonnes of clothing disposed of from the fast fashion industry in the US and other developed countries are sent to developing countries annually. The team propose to lengthen the utility life of these disposed textiles, which currently ends in landfill, by manufacturing and re-purposing them into sanitary pads. They hope to tackle the unmet need of millions of women through key partnerships with large textile manufacturers, local NGOs, and distributors.

The students, who had met each other only days before their winning pitch, were commended by judges, mentors, and volunteers for their passion and creativity at the final of the Collaboration Lab, an enterprise-based competition for 250 undergraduate engineering students from universities across the UK, US, and China. They pitched their engineering solutions for global challenges to over 700 of their peers and engineering leaders at the Global Grand Challenges Summit in London last month. The summit, Engineering in an unpredictable world, addressed the opportunities and challenges posed by the impact of transformational technologies on humanity, and sustaining a population of 10 billion.

Hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Collaboration Lab was the conclusion of a six-month programme of challenge-led innovation, design and business development for the students. The Collaboration Lab kicked off with five winning teams from each nation pitching their solutions developed during the programme, which had to address one of the summit’s themes, to a panel of senior judges.

A team from the University of Surrey won this first stage of the competition for designing a post-harvest storage network. The team, who won £15,000 to develop their proposal, plan to work towards a vision of zero hunger by 2050 by reducing post-harvest storage losses in developing countries. The storage network would work like an ‘Airbnb for grains,’ implemented via a Progressive Web Application. Teams from Hong Kong University and North Carolina State University were joint runners up and each received £7,500.

In the second stage of the Collaboration Lab, students were assigned to mixed-country teams to tackle the same issues within a very short time frame, to highlight the power of diversity and cross-cultural working in innovation. In an unprecedented two-day workshop of international cooperation, comprising ideation, training, brainstorming and mentorship, fifty diverse teams hammered out new solutions, culminating in four international teams - EmPads, GreenGUT, Postlytics and Earth of Things – being selected to present at the main summit.

All the teams that participated in the Collaboration Lab are being offered ongoing support and mentorship by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering to continue to develop their solutions.

For more information on the Collaboration Lab and the Global Grand Challenges Summit, please visit here.

About the international teams:

Winner: EmPads

Team members: Juncheng Shen (The University of Nottingham Ningbo China); Amrit Anup Menon (Heriot-Watt University); Angela Peter (Oklahoma State University); Ellenor Witton (Heriot-Watt University); Zixi Hong (Wuhan University); Travis Kelley (University of Iowa)

Team mentor: Jennifer Jia, University of Cambridge

Concept summary: EmPads is designed as a frugal innovation aiming to alleviate period poverty in developing countries by extending the utility life of disposed textiles, that typically end in landfill, by manufacturing and re-purposing them into sanitary pads. They aim to meet the need of millions of women through key partnerships with large textile manufacturers, local NGOs, and distributors.

Finalist: Green Gut

Team members: Suqin Yuan (Chongqing University); Shuang Wu (Northeastern University); James McKevitt (Loughborough University); Kaitlyn Lindholm (University of Idaho); Carlos Gonzalez (Marquette University)

Team mentor: Dr Ignacio Tudela-Montes, University of Edinburgh

Concept summary: Green Gut is a diagnostic tool for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). GreenGut provides a simple and accessible way to perform a diagnosis easily and comfortably at home by introducing an engineered probiotic to the colon. The strain of probiotic in GreenGut has an IBD sensor that will cause the expression of a green protein if it detects the disease. This, consequently, would colour a person’s faeces green, providing a clear indicator for the user if they were suffering from an IBD.

Finalist: Postlytics

Team members: Shahryar “Sean” Shagoshtasbi (University of Maryland); Emily Cho (University of Maryland); Yuxin “Morella” Wang (Fuzhou University); Marina Lykoudi (University of Glasgow); Zhefan “Luke” He (University of Nottingham Ningbo, China)

Team mentor: Dr Kayleen Helms, Intel Corporation

Concept summary: Postlytics is a tool to improve healthcare and advance bioinformatics by offering a home-based, wearable patch after surgery that monitors vital signs and provides real-time data to hospitals, nurses, and doctors.

Finalist: Earth of Things

Team members: Anthony Setiadi Budisuharto (City University of Hong Kong); Gyasi Talib (University of Kansas); Jingai Zuo (Shanghai University); Jonathan Roarty (University of Glasgow); Michael A. LaScola (University of Maryland Baltimore County) 

Team mentors: Dmitry Leyko, University College London, and Paul Neale, Lockheed Martin UK

Concept summary: WiCycle is a smartphone app that aims to help users recycle correctly by scanning their waste, earning points that can be redeemed for discounts and receiving information on how to dispose of it properly. Users will be able to review their waste data to better understand their personal consumption habits, and anonymous consumer habits can be sold to manufacturing companies, providing them with accurate information on the amounts of consumed/used products that they can use to optimise their supply chain and reduce waste.

About the national teams who entered the first stage of the international competition before mixed-nationality teams were created:

Winning Team: University of Surrey

Innovation: The team aims to contribute towards a vision of ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2050 by reducing post-harvest storage losses in developing countries. The storage network is essentially like Airbnb for grains and will be implemented via a Progressive Web Application.

Second place: Hong Kong University

Innovation: ClearBot is a scalable, AI-powered, plastic collecting intelligent robotic solution to address the ocean plastic epidemic with a sustainable community-centric symbiotic ecosystem.

Second place: North Carolina State University

Innovation: An affordable treatment process to filter wastewater into clean water and fertiliser. This will produce purified water while creating a product that economically benefits coffee producers through increasing crop yields and reducing topsoil erosion.


Notes for Editors

  1. Engineering in an unpredictable world marks the start of a second series of summits jointly hosted by the UK, US and Chinese academies of engineering. Inspired by the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, the summit challenged engineers to address the issues set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with a particular focus on sustaining a world of 10 billion people, and ensuring that AI and other transformational technologies have a positive impact on humanity.

For more information on Engineering in an unpredictable world, please visit

Engineering in an unpredictable world – the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2019 – was made possible by the generous support of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Accenture Strategy and Lockheed Martin.

  1. Royal Academy of Engineering

The Royal Academy of Engineering brings together the most successful and talented engineers from across the profession – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We have three strategic priorities: make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses, address the engineering skills crisis, and position engineering at the heart of society. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

  1. National Academy of Engineering of the United States

The mission of the National Academy of Engineering of the United States (NAE) is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology. The NAE is part of the National Academies of Sciences, an independent, non-profit organization chartered by Congress to provide objective analysis and advice to the nation on matters of science, technology, and health.

  1. Chinese Academy of Engineering

The Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) is a national and independent organization composed of elected members with the highest honour in the community of engineering and technological sciences of the nation. By initiating and conducting strategic studies and providing consultancy for decision-making for the nation’s key issues of engineering and technology, the CAE devotes itself to promoting the progress of engineering and technological sciences.


For more information please contact the Royal Academy of Engineering:

Jane Sutton

Tel. 020 7766 0636; email:


Ryan Gibson

Tel. 0207 766 0688; email: