The 2009 cohort of BMEidea winners included two new diagnostic technologies and a surgical device, each designed to make healthcare more efficient, more effective, and less costly. We caught up the winners a year after the competition to see where they're at, what progress they've made, and how winning the BMEidea competition has affected their projects.
First prize: Lab-on-a-Stick, Stanford University
It’s a situation most of us take for granted: if you go to the doctor for, say, a blood test, it’s going to take some time to get the results back. The sample is drawn, the doctor sends the sample to a lab, the lab runs the test and sends back the results. The entire process takes several days, if not more, and in the developing world (where labs can be distant or non-existent) it may not be an option at all.
Two Stanford doctoral students are looking to change all that. Richard Gaster and Drew Hall, winners of the 2009 BMEidea competition, are the creators of a technology that has the potential to test for disease any time and any place, without doctors, technicians or special lab equipment. The device, dubbed NanoLab (formerly Lab-on-a-Stick), is the size of a small paperback book, and consists of an electronic circuit board, LEDs and a tiny well, just big enough to hold a few drops of blood from a pipette.
It works in three steps: the user adds a droplet of a sample (blood, saliva, urine, etc.) into the well, adds magnetic tags to label the viral proteins (making them detectable by the device’s nanosensors), and finally adds a protein solution containing disease antibodies. The tester hits start and, ten to fifteen minutes later, small green, orange and red lights illuminate, indicating which disease proteins were detected, and at what level. This is essentially miniaturizing a 250-pound electromagnet and desktop computer from a normal-sized lab into tiny wires that fit in the palm of your hand, and has the potential to become a disruptive technology in both developed and developing countries.1
The idea for the project came out of Gaster’s and Hall’s research. Gaster, a fourth-year MD and PhD candidate in bioengineering, and Hall, a fifth-year PhD student in electrical engineering, have been collaborating together on their research projects, which involve ultra-sensitive diagnostic lab equipment. But they hadn’t thought of bringing their research to a larger world until the BMEidea competition. According to Gaster, “When we heard about the BMEidea competition, it was a great gateway for us to say, ‘Let’s do something—let’s make a difference.’ We brainstormed potential projects that we could pursue with our expertise, and we realized that we could make an affordable device that could be useful to a lot more people than just those working in labs and research facilities like our own.”
Hall added, “We wanted to do something that could benefit humanity and be helpful on a large scale, not just to a small subset of people.”
Just submitting for BMEidea itself turned out to be something of a challenge, however, since Gaster and Hall started late in the application process and only had enough time for two phases of design. “That meant one opportunity for failure,” said Gaster. The first design they created was a failure, but in the second round of design they fixed all the problems, and the device worked. “It was fortunate that we’ve been working in this area in general,” said Hall. “We knew what the technical challenges would be, and it all worked out in the end.”
The team has had a series of successes since winning BMEidea, finalizing a utility patent, winning a Gates Foundation grant to support the development of the technology for point-of-care HIV/AIDS diagnosis in sub-Saharan Africa, winning first prize in the IEEE Presidents’ Change the World Competition, and making several technical advances to automate the device more than before—streamlining the process.
The team is just now getting into the thicket of commercializing the device, figuring out the business model they want to use to bring it to market. They’ve spoken with several companies regarding licensing, but they haven’t decided if licensing or creating a startup is the right path for them.
“We’re looking into all the different opportunities right now, as we speak,” said Hall. “We’re working on a business plan to figure out whether it’s financially feasible for us to turn this into a startup company or whether it’s better for us to license it to a bigger company with more resources. We haven’t decided yet what the best path is.”
In the meantime, Gaster and Hall are glad they applied for the BMEidea competition. Said Gaster: “Drew and I have always had an interest in developing our respective research projects for bigger causes, but we never had the motivation to actually do it. We’d always say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t this be cool, wouldn’t that be cool,’ and not pursue it. When we read about the BMEidea competition it motivated us to spend a lot of nights and weekends hammering out this idea, seeing if it was really feasible, and if we have the capability to create a world-changing invention. It really gave us that motivation.”
“And, moving forward, having won the BMEidea competition, it gives us clout in the future when we’re presenting to venture capitalists or even for job applications. It shows that we have the ability to create an interesting idea that has a chance to make an impact on the world.”
Second prize: SurgiSIL, University of Cincinnati
Laparoscopic surgery is a relatively new technique in which small incisions are made in the abdomen and surgical instruments are passed through, allowing for smaller wounds, quicker recovery times and shorter hospital stays. In a typical laparoscopic procedure, two to five “trocars,” or access ports, are inserted into the abdomen and act as passageways for surgical instruments.
This team, winner of second place in the 2009 BMEidea competition, is looking to reduce the number of trocars to exactly one.
Calling itself Single Port Solutions, the team is developing the SurgiSIL, a device that allows a surgeon to perform laparoscopy through one access point in the belly button. This single port approach reduces trauma even further, decreases recovery time, and eliminates visible scarring since the single incision is hidden in the belly button.
Other single port devices are in development by other companies, but the team is achieving competitive differentiation in the SurgiSIL by increasing the range of motion available to the surgeon and by making the exchange of surgical instruments in and out of the SurgiSIL quicker and easier than anyone else.
The SurgiSIL project got its start when a general surgeon contacted Mary Beth Privitera, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, with a problem he wanted solved: creating a single-port access device for laparoscopy. The idea was plugged into the Medical Device Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at UC, in which a range of clinical problems in need of solutions is presented to students and they self-select the projects they want to participate in. Four students chose to work on the single-port access device: Michael Wirtz, Fath Kyle, Steve Haverkos and Miao Wang.
The team worked hard on the project, designing a device, forming a company and licensing the IP from the university (and winning second place in the BMEidea competition along the way). They were actively looking into licensing with several industry partners when they hit a roadblock: intellectual property. Said Privitera: “The biggest challenge in commercializing laparoscopy devices is IP. This area has major companies in it—large players that patent everything.”
The hitch was the SurgiSIL’s sealing mechanism. Patents in the area of laparoscopy have been around since the early 90’s, and the sealing mechanisms for the devices have a multitude of patents around them. “So while the SurgiSIL project isn’t shelved,” said Privitera, “it’s in a holding pattern until there’s a solution that’s more readily patentable around the sealing issue.”
IP issues aside, participating in the BMEidea competition has been beneficial both to the team members and to the institution, according to Privitera. “The impact of the BMEidea competition was actually quite large,” she said. “Winning BMEidea was probably the biggest motivational factor for the team; it helped them gel, come together, and really hone in on a business plan and get it to a stage where licensing could even be considered.”
From a faculty standpoint, having SurgiSIL take second prize in the BMEidea competition has motivated this year’s teams to “up the ante a bit,” according to Privitera. “They’re looking at SurgiSIL and saying, ‘OK, they did it, they were creative, they worked together, they won this competition, and so can we.’ It’s really set a good example. Even though SurgiSIL isn’t on the market and being sold today, it has paved a path that other students are looking to go down.”
Third prize: A Novel Biosensor to Measure Vitamin D Levels in Serum, Brown University
A curious aspect of modern science is the seeming rise and fall of certain drugs, foods, vitamins, activities—even genes—depending on the latest research. One study will say one thing, a different study will contradict it, and a third will go in a different direction altogether.
A classic example is vitamin D. Nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin” because the skin makes it from ultraviolet rays, vitamin D interacts with over 2,000 genes (about 10% of the genome) in the human body. But for a long time the scientific consensus has been to avoid exposure to sunlight due to the threat of skin cancer.
Now some scientists are questioning that advice.
The reason is that vitamin D increasingly seems important for preventing and even treating many types of cancer. Studies have found it helps protect against lymphoma and cancers of the prostate, lung and, ironically, the skin.2 Research has implicated vitamin D deficiency as a major factor in the pathology of seventeen cancers, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression and more.
Vitamin D, therefore, is on an uptick. The demand for clinical testing of vitamin D levels is rising as well, and this Brown University team, winners of third prize in the 2009 BMEidea competition, is looking to capitalize by creating a vitamin D tester that’s cheap, easy to use and produces immediate results.
Current methods of vitamin D testing suffer from the same drawbacks as any other laboratory test: they’re expensive and take a long time (several days) to get the results. A take-home vitamin D test kit is on the market, but requires users to mail in a special blotting paper containing a few drops of their blood to a lab and wait even longer for the results—two to three weeks.
The Brown University team is instead measuring vitamin D using electrochemical detection technology similar to a commercial glucose meter. The user inserts into the hand-held device a disposable testing strip with a small blood sample on it; the sample is analyzed and the results are displayed qualitatively and quantitatively within minutes. No waiting for days, and the test is estimated to cost about half as much as a traditional vitamin D test performed in a laboratory.
It works not by measuring the actual amount of vitamin D in the blood sample, but rather by measuring how much current is used during catalysis of a certain enzymatic vitamin D precursor. Measuring how much current is drawn by the enzymatic activity correlates to the amount of vitamin D available.
The Brown team consists of Steve Rhieu and Vince Siu on the technology development side, and Matt Doherty, Lei Yang, Moses Riner, and Michael Kreitzer on the business development side. The latter four students are from the Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship (PRIME), a one-year management program at Brown in which students learn entrepreneurship and venture development skills, then take research from Brown laboratories and try to find the commercial value in it. And they’ve been doing just that with the novel vitamin D biosensor, carefully building a compelling business case for the technology.
It hasn’t come without challenges. Their original business strategy was to sell the device as an off-the-shelf home-testing kit, but, according to Doherty, they “soon found out that wasn’t the best way to market it. People would have to prick themselves, which no one likes, and they wouldn’t necessarily be savvy about the way they implant the blood onto the testing strip.”
The team changed gears to market the device directly to doctors and physicians. Their plan now is to outsource the manufacturing and sales of the device itself, but make a profit selling the disposable strips. Said Doherty, “That would be a continuous buy as opposed to people buying the device just once.”
Another challenge has simply been getting people aware of why they need vitamin D testing, not only in the general population but among doctors as well. “The product has real benefits,” said Kreitzer, “but one of the challenges has been finding individuals in the market who understand not only the value of vitamin D testing but the value of the product as well.”
The growth of vitamin D awareness, however, makes Kreitzer optimistic about the device’s future. “The good thing is that people are becoming more and more educated about vitamin D. Awareness is growing. More and more diseases are being linked to vitamin D deficiency, so as we progress the venture, so does the readiness of the market.”
The technology development is ongoing, with both Rhieu and Siu as part of the process. The device, which originated as part of Rhieu’s doctoral research, is being optimized as the team works toward a fully functional prototype. They published a preliminary study of their findings last July, which was well received, and Rhieu and Siu meet periodically with the PRIME students, “so we can continue to understand the point of view of healthcare personnel and physicians—understand the real need we need to meet,” said Rhieu.
As far as the experience of the BMEidea competition is concerned, both the technology development students and the business students found it valuable. Said Rhieu: “More than anything, it encouraged us to continue working on this project. It was good way to see the other aspects of the project as well; for example, I never thought this project would be significant for businesspeople; I never thought about figuring out how to actually sell a product. So it was good for me as a scientist to be exposed to that aspect of the project.”
According to Riner, the experience of figuring out how to commercialize a new technology has been valuable in and of itself. “It’s been a great experiential learning experience.”
Over the next year, the team plans on continuing development of the core technologies as well as marketing efforts.
1. From http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/july22/nanolab-diagnostic-tool-072309.html
2. From http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-21-doctors-sunshine-good_x.htm
We've just completed (April 23) our first VentureLab: a program that puts early stage student ventures into a dynamic learning environment, with the goal of accelerating their development into successful companies. Twenty teams of varying experience attended VentureLab, participating in activities designed to build their financial model, sales channels, and business strategy.
A one-day workshop for faculty, graduate students or post-docs who are developing research solutions to technical problems that they believe can have market relevance – even if they don’t know what that relevance is!
In the day-long intensive session participants work as teams to:
Clarify how markets are structured and relate to your research
Determine what aspects of their research can become inventions and innovations to address market needs
Define if your potential invention really is an innovation and whether it is a potential platform technology
Gain skills for career success regardless of your desired path
2. R2I Translation Planning WORKSHOP
A one-day workshop for university innovators and innovation teams that need to plan a strategy for translating research into innovations that serve a market need.
In the session, participants gain the skills to:
Build an actionable research to innovation translation plan
Develop methods to monitor plan progress
Define and assemble the resources required for R2I success at your institution
Communicate the plan, opportunities, and potential challenges to ensure stakeholders are aligned to help.
3. Get the Answers PANEL
Get the Answers is a series of half-day panel sessions for university innovators and innovation teams that need clear information on critical tool and resources supporting research translation at, and outside of, their institution.
By using a combination of in-house experts at your institution and external experts in a pre-formatted setting, topics can be tailored to need. Popular topics include:
IP – how it works, role of students and faculty
What is the Tech Transfer and Commercial Development process – how does it work, what are the rules at the institution, and how do students, post docs and faculty constructively and effectively engage in this process.
R2I participants say:
March 2009: Here's what CalTech CCI Solar team members Weihua Wang and Josh Spurgeon had to say about the R2I@CCI they attended in Cambridge, MA:
Weihua: This great training program taught us how to view our science from a “market lens”. For the first time, I started to look at my research from a different point of view and started to relate it with the concepts that I had never thought about before, such as “market segment”, “value chain”, “technology transfer”… It was kind of exciting. R2I offered us a unique opportunity to interact with experts in technology innovation and transfer and to learn the fundamentals of effective research translation and innovation. It helps me begin to set up new goals for future research.
Josh: We learned in much greater detail about intellectual property and how it works at universities. I learned what patents are good for and how university tech transfer offices can help you get one by first applying for a provisional patent before you publish, then moving on to apply for a real patent within one year.
Dr. Giordan has enjoyed a career as a technology and corporate executive for several Fortune 500 companies, including Vice President of Global R&D for Pepsicola and International Flavors and Fragrances, and VP R&D Henkel Corporation. She has held adjunct and visiting academic positions and is currently Professor of Practice at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is active in professional societies and organizations including the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Intangible Asset Finance Society, and the Industrial Research Institute. She is a member of the Board of Directors for startup companies, is a serial entrepreneur and is former Member of the Board of Directors both the Industrial Research Institute and the ACS. Dr. Giordan is also Managing Director – Intangible Asset Finance for Steel City Re, LLC and Vice President of Visions in Education, Inc. Dr. Giordan received her BS from Rutgers University, her PhD from the University of Maryland, and was an Alexander von Humboldt post-doctoral fellow at the University of Frankfurt, Germany.
Joseph Steig | Treasurer and Manager of Venture Development Joseph leads the Venture Well program for the NCIIA. He has twenty years experience as an advisor and CFO to entrepreneurial companies and non-profits. He also advises Long River Ventures, a regional venture capital firm, in the role of consulting CFO. He grew up in Vancouver, Canada and graduated with a BA from Hampshire College. email@example.com
A successful collision of astonomy and entrepreneurship has helped launch the Galileoscope project, which aims to put powerful, affordable telescopes into the hands of amateur astronomers around the world. The project, which stumbled during the global financial crisis, was saved by an entrepreneurial approach developed by its founders.
Long-time NCIIA grantee, Doug Arion, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Entrepreneurial Studies Program at Carthage College, is a member of the project team. Read more about the project in Science Magazine.
NCIIA and Microsoft New England Research and Development Center invite Boston-area entrepreneurs and investors to VentureConnect 2010, a showcase of northeastern university tech startup companies that are engaged in an intensive two-week program to accelerate their ventures. The event will be held at Microsoft NERD on Friday, April 23. See details on the registration form.
The teams are participating in NCIIA's new VentureLab workshop. The teams will demonstrate their innovations and showcase how they've accelerated in the VentureLab program. The ventures created by both graduate and undergraduate startups include such diverse areas including solar, security, software and emerging markets ventures.
A growing number of NCIIA's student grantees and innovators are going on to become social entrepreneurs. In her article in Good Magazine, Grants Manager Jennifer Keller Jackson talks about this trend, indicators for success, and what we can do to support these students.
In developing countries, especially post-war countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, and Haiti, amputees cannot afford the high price of prostheses, which ranges from $500 to several thousand dollars.
A 2009 Sustainable Vision team from Mercer University is designing a new prosthetic socket that is cheaper and takes less time to fit to the amputee, helping reduce overall cost.