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dmi:Design Value Award Winner - Okakopi
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dmi:Design Value Award Winner




Northwestern University, Segal Design Institute, MS, Engineering Design Innovation Program

Okakopi: Sustainable Feminine Care


Menstrual cups are small flexible cups made of medical-grade silicone and are the most sustainable method of period protection. A single menstrual cup lasts ten years, replacing nearly 3000 pads and tampons that would be used over that time, saving the waste in the supply chain that is created when manufacturing and distributing more traditional forms of feminine hygiene (femcare) products.

Not only are cups better for the environment, they are also more affordable. The average woman spends about $120 every year on pads and tampons. A single cup typically costs under $40. But it is difficult for many women to justify the higher one-time cost of a cup when they are uncertain if it will be effective. 

The market for menstrual cups is nearly $1B and growing at a 4.6% annual rate. In comparison, organic products are relative newcomers to the femcare space, but the market is expected to grow at a 7% annual rate. While 23% of women express interest in switching to a more sustainable femcare option, the discrepancy between the growth rate of menstrual cups and organic femcare highlights the experiential barriers that make menstrual cups a tough sell for women used to traditional solutions. The group at the Segal Design Institute hypothesized that a more desirable solution would capitalize on interest and take a notable share of a growing menstrual cup market. When surveying the existing market, the team found a stagnant marketplace with over a hundred cups that don’t vary significantly in functionality. 

The objective for the team at the Segal Design Institute was to develop a more accessible menstrual cup system aimed at helping women new to using a cup feel confident and comfortable. As a team solely comprised of busy students, the group had to be deliberate but agile in the planning of the project and processes. Constrained by finances and time, the group had only 10 weeks from opportunity identification to proof-of-concept, so they were resourceful in research, user recruitment tactics, prototyping and testing plans. 

Before any prototypes were made, they talked to hundreds of women who were struggling with using a cup or too afraid to try one. While periods are an extremely sensitive and stigmatized issue for many women, they were able to reach out to primary users through friends and family and interact with a much larger audience through existing cup-focused communities on Facebook and Reddit. They found that women didn’t trust menstrual cups to provide a stress-free experience. Research led to two key issues women encountered on their first few uses of a menstrual cup: mess-free removal and ensuring leak-free wear. 

Using experience in mechanical engineering and creating an intersection between human-centered and technical design, they determined a design that could ease the insertion, thus reducing leaks, and lower the touchpoint for breaking the seal of the cup, allowing for a cleaner removal process. 

Knowing that they had little time limited finances for prototyping, the group leveraged team engineering skills and the resources available at Northwestern to make each functional prototype in approximately 4 hours of work time, 24 hours of wait time, and a cost of under $2. The process allowed the team to stretch their limited budget and test over fifteen different prototypes before reaching a solution that met the needs of users, the okaCup and companion app.

Unlike other cups on the market which require women to reach up to the rim of the cup to break the seal and remove the cup when it is full, the okaCup implements patent-pending ribs along the length of the cup. The okaCup can be removed by pressing inwards on a rib at the base of the cup, transferring force up to the rim and effectively breaking the seal without needing to reach far up into the vaginal canal, thus making it easier to remove and reducing the risk of spilling. 

Women beginning to use menstrual cups are also unsure about how long it takes for their cup to fill. The okaTrack app predicts a woman’s flow and sends alerts when the okaCup needs to be emptied. Okakopi gives women the confidence to adopt a sustainable method of period protection and successfully use menstrual cups without worrying about leaks or spills from the first use.

In early 2019, the team was awarded first place at the Product Development & Management Association’s White Space Design Challenge and were semifinalists in Northwestern University’s VentureCat pitch competition in the business-to-consumer category. Through these events, the group had access to mentors and coaches that helped them develop a go-to-market strategy.

The strategy is to build medical-grade silicone prototypes to conduct testing with users in fall 2019 and continue working on developing the app, okaTrack. A Kickstarter campaign will grow market awareness and deeper consumer understanding.

The team at the Segal Design Institute overcame time and resources limitations to use Design Thinking methodologies to address barriers to adoption for a product that has tremendous social and environmental reach.


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