Good ideas for new medical devices are a dime a dozen. Getting from an idea to an actual product is the true challenge. There are many factors to manage during the early stages of developing an idea into a product, financial potential, electronics, materials, regulatory issues, ergonomics, and clinical significance.
There are now dozens of incubators, accelerators, and product development outfits around the country that help advance ideas for medical products, but they’re clustered on the coasts and in a few hubs, such as Silicon Valley. Many, if not most, take a share in the businesses they’re helping to start and end up having a say in how they’re run.
We recently had a chance to visit a unique place, located in the Midwest, that takes a somewhat different approach. The applied Medical Device Institute (aMDI), located within the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing at Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a place that helps people with novel ideas get through the early challenges of making a medical device prototype and closer to manufacturing a commercialized solution.
Brent M. Nowak, Ph.D., Executive Director of aMDI gave us a tour of the Institute and explained its approach, capabilities, and some of the companies and technologies it helped to get started.
The Institute does not take a financial stake in any of the ideas it helps to advance, as its goals are grounded in helping to improve medical care, giving students a real world experience, and offering the surrounding community an important intellectual and business resource.
aMDI, being associated with Grand Valley State, as well as harnessing the resources of a number of other clinical, research, and academic institutions in the area, can bring together engineers, business people, medical professional, and researchers in related fields, to solve the challenges involved in getting from idea to a product. Moreover, the Institute has a good deal of prototyping capability, including a 3D additive manufacturing lab and certified staff able to run the equipment inside. It can help with creating both physical and analytical models, help to create prototypes and the necessary fabrication techniques, as well as test these prototypes for feasibility in realistic scenarios.
Aside from the direct help it can provide, aMDI has a good deal of lab and office space that it makes available for young life science and med device companies to help incubate their businesses into more substantial ventures. There are three firms that are currently taking advantage of these incubator services, which is allowing them get going without getting bogged down with issues related to renting one’s own space, finding qualified staff, and a host of mundane topics, such as making sure there’s enough toilet paper in the bathroom.
One company that’s taking advantage of aMDI’s incubation services is Encoris, and it has developed medical models and realistic mock-ups of human anatomy that can be used to safely and calmly practice surgical techniques on. One interesting product the firm developed is the S2T Surgical Smart Trainer, a reproduction of the spine and surrounding anatomy, and an accompanying model X-ray C-arm, for practicing minimally invasive spinal surgery.
Most minimally invasive approaches rely on X-ray imaging for at least a portion of the procedure. To avoid reliance on X-ray imaging during practice, the Encoris system has a ring around the model spine with cameras attached to it. The cameras, with a bit of computer graphics magic, produce an image that looks just like what a typical C-arm would show during surgery. This gives students the ability to play around with the spine, see what it, the tissues surrounding, and the instruments look like under X-ray, and to do so as much and from as many different angles as they want without fear of radiation exposure.
One other interesting technology developed at the applied Medical Device Institute is the Sterilogy system from a company by the same name. It is designed to solve the persistent insufficient lack of hand washing by many clinicians.
The technology consists of wearable container of hand sanitizer, which has some smart electronics hidden inside. As the user enters certain areas, such as a patient room, the belt-worn container vibrates to remind the clinician to apply the sanitizer. The clinician simply squeezes the Sterilogy device and it dispenses the sanitizer that can be rubbed over both of the hands. The system can also have additional triggers and schedules, for example making sure the person wearing it uses the sanitizer at the minimum every ten minutes.
It’s pretty cool how the system doesn’t require the clinician to remember to make sure the hands are clean, but because there is wireless tech built-in, the clinic using the Sterilogy system can keep track of how compliant staff is with hand washing regimens.
Exciting medical technology companies like these are happily and quietly incubating in Grand Rapids, and aMDI is helping to make that happen for the benefit of those with great ideas, for the economic benefit of the region, and for the general improvement of healthcare.
For those curious, the lower case “a” in aMDI is, in the words of Brent Nowak, “intended to emphasize that we are not a basic research organization. Rather we focus on bringing products and devices to market through ‘applied’ engineering and sciences. In the jargon of some federal agencies, we focus on Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 4 thru 6 to bring them to 9 or 10.”