McCormick Magazine

From Students to Innovators

Four Northwestern schools join together to launch the next generation of medical devices


NUvention teamAround campus they gather, huddled over laptops and notebooks, spending hours brainstorming, researching, constructing, stumbling, and regrouping again to create medical devices and business plans that will fulfill needs and save lives. Alone they are future engineers, lawyers, physicians, and businesspeople. Together they are innovators of the present day.

They are students in NUvention: Medical Innovation, the inaugural course offered by a new visionary academic partnership. The course, conceived by students and brought to life by motivated faculty, brings together four Northwestern University schools — McCormick, the Feinberg School of Medicine, the Kellogg School of Management, and the School of Law — to teach students how innovation goes from the lab to the patient.

"Design-think is now at the center of discussions of U.S. technological leadership and innovation," says McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino. "Good ideas happen at interfaces; there are lots of interfaces when one puts four schools together."

Building an innovative course
In 2006 Swami Gnanashanmugam, a student at Feinberg, James Sulzer, a PhD student at McCormick, and others involved in InNUvation, a student group focused on entrepreneurship, approached Ottino with an idea for a course focused on medical devices.

Shortly thereafter Ottino created the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation — aimed at empowering engineers with the skills to be successful entrepreneurs — and after connecting with the deans of the other three schools, Ottino asked the center to bring the course to life. The center, in turn, created NUvention to develop interdisciplinary courses like Medical Innovation, which teaches students the life cycle of products and how to build businesses around those products.

Ed VoborilAround the same time, Ed Voboril, recently retired chairman of the board for Greatbatch Inc. and now chairman of the board of Analogic Corp., was considering teaching at McCormick. All that was holding him back was the fact that he and his wife were building a new home in Arizona, where they hoped to retire.

As fate would have it, Voboril, while at a McCormick Advisory Council meeting in October 2006, received a call that his house had burned down. Ottino sent Voboril a note asking if there was anything he could do to help, and a week later, Voboril called Ottino up to say that he and his wife had decided to make Chicago their home while a new Arizona home was constructed. Voboril wanted to help out with creating a new innovation course, so Ottino appointed him chairman of NUvention.

"It put me in a position to come back and couple my interest in education with my experience in medical technology," Voboril says. Voboril, Ottino, Mike Marasco, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and others spent much of spring 2007 creating the curriculum for the course.

What resulted was a two-quarter course, meeting over the fall 2007 and winter 2008 quarters, called Medical Innovation. Students who enrolled from each school were placed into groups based on their interest in different medical disciplines — cardiology, radiology, orthopedics, trauma, emergency medicine, ophthalmology, urology, neurosurgery, general surgery, and otolaryngology, better known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) — and given the charge of creating an innovative medical device with a business plan that they could present to venture capitalists at the end of the second term.

Each week students heard lectures from both Northwestern professors and guest speakers on how to design devices, deal with regulations, determine market potential, pitch an idea, search and get patents, create a business plan, and raise money to fund a project. Between classes students observed doctors in action, assessed clinical needs, designed innovative devices, built prototypes, and created business plans.

The 10 companies represented on NUvention's advisory board each gave $25,000 to fund the creation of prototypes. "Based on their support for this concept, they gave an important lift to the program," says Voboril.

Marasco says Medical Innovation has exceeded expectations both in and outside the classroom. "I think it has been invigorating to experience something new and recognize that we're really building something that is unique that will hopefully have significant impact at Northwestern as a whole," he says.

ENT teamVisualizing a hearing solution
For McCormick undergraduate Nicholas Deep (biomedical engineering '08) — one of only a couple undergraduates in the class — the Medical Innovation course caters to his interest in combining engineering and medicine. "I can actually conceive of an idea and take it to market and sell it with the ultimate goal of helping people," he says.

Choosing the ENT team was easy; as a child, Deep had meningitis, which caused a cranial fluid leak in his right ear and caused him to lose part of his hearing. Throughout his childhood Deep frequently visited the same ENT doctor, who tracked his progress. "I became close with him, so I've always wanted to become an ENT," he says.

His teammate Jodie Zimmerman, a graduate student at Kellogg, came to Northwestern to learn how to commercialize new medical technology, so Medical Innovation was a natural fit. "This course fits right in that niche," she says. "It's a great opportunity to test it out risk free, so that when you do it in the real world, you don't make the same mistakes."

To begin, the team shadowed surgeons and doctors in the ENT clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to look for tools that were inefficient or needed improving. They then created a list of 50 user needs and prioritized them based on what they could achieve given their time and resources.

Andrew Fishman, assistant professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at the Feinberg School of Medicine, acted as one of the team's clinical advisers. "The idea was for them to come up with the ideas rather than for us to spoon-feed them," he says. "We focused on making them inventors and training them to go through this process, and we really held back on just dropping ideas into their lap." Fishman did provide feedback on their options and gave advice on what would be realistic and practical.

The group eventually developed four product concepts. Then, after meeting with their advisers, they came up with mini-business plans for two products. At that point in the class, each group had to pitch its products to a panel of investors, who gave feedback and access to funds to build prototypes for one concept.

The ENT group decided to focus on a mainstay of every doctor's office — the otoscope, which doctors use to look into patients' ears. Every type of physician from pediatricians and general family doctors to specialists use otoscopes to diagnose ear infections.

"It is viable for a large market, and there's a lot of opportunity for improvement," Zimmerman says. The group did market research to determine which improvements to the otoscope would be most helpful to those in the field.

Through it all the group's faculty adviser, Alicia Löffler, director of Kellogg's Center for Biotechnology, helped them stay on track by checking in every week. "I made sure they were allowed to have crazy ideas and then I made sure they focused," she says. "It's all about practice. It's all about giving them the opportunity to make decisions and mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And as an entrepreneur, sometimes you just have to jump and do it. You always need to make decisions with incomplete information. But you also have to know when is a good time to jump."

In the end, the group decided to create an otoscope that could take photos. Both Deep and Zimmerman are quick to list off the benefits of such a device: It could help doctors teach medical students by showing them the middle ear, and it could help physicians monitor the progress of an ear infection. "Some doctors look at 30 ears a day," Zimmerman says. "Do you really remember what that one kid's ear looked like?"

The photo-otoscope, along with computer programming tools, could make diagnostics more efficient and could even help diagnose ear problems in third-world countries by allowing physicians here to diagnose problems from e-mailed photos. More efficient diagnostics could mean fewer antibiotics prescribed, and showing patients photos could give them a better sense of what's happening in their ears. "The doctor could say, 'This is what's going on, and this is why you should take your medicine,'" Zimmerman says.

Similar products exist, but they are bulky, expensive, and largely used by specialists. A more affordable otoscope, says Deep, would provide a more integrated approach to diagnosing ear infections.

In February the team was in the midst of creating several prototypes, doing more market research, searching patents, and creating a business plan. "The biggest challenge is actually putting the pieces together," Deep says. Building a true prototype will determine the price and market and could determine whether the group will try to sell their product or build a company.

Either way, both Zimmerman and Deep say they've learned a lot from students in other schools — whether it's how to build a prototype or how to create a business plan. "Working with such a cross-functional team is a huge advantage," Zimmerman says. "You're going to have to work with engineers and doctors on advisory boards, and I never thought I'd get a chance to do that in business school."

And in a team that includes both undergraduate and graduate students, the playing field is even. "We all look at each other as equals," Zimmerman says. "Everyone just has so much to contribute with their own specialization."

Fishman says he has been impressed with the group's motivation and thinks they'll be successful. "I think it would be a very useful tool, especially in an academic environment," he says. "I'd like to have one of their products myself."

While Zimmerman plans to use her experience to further her business career, Deep's future likely includes attending medical school. But he'll never lose that entrepreneurial bug he's caught in Medical Innovation.

"I'm going to want to keep the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship close," he says. "I want to always be involved in research, and if I ever have an idea, I know how to make it happen."

Heart teamMending the heart
Knowing how to "make it happen" is also the goal of Medical Innovation student Usha Periyanayagam, who isn't the typical McCormick graduate student — she's a fourth-year student at the Feinberg School of Medicine who took a leave of absence to get her master's degree in engineering design and innovation.

"I actually heard about Medical Innovation in medical school, and I was considering doing it from a medical perspective," she says. "But I realized I wanted to do medical engineering device work, and I was curious to learn more about the field — like how to make products and how to take products and make them sustainable."

Though Periyanayagam hopes to go into emergency medicine, she joined the class's cardiovascular team — the largest team in the class — because of the field's long history of innovation.

Joining her on the team was Chris Lubeck, who is studying at the Northwestern University School of Law after getting a graduate degree in materials science from McCormick. "I thought there would be a lot of materials science issues with the cardio team, which would be interesting," he says.

So the cardiovascular team, like the ENT team, went about observing cardiovascular surgeons in the field to identify needs. Apparently the field's long history of devices didn't stop the team members' creativity — they identified 100 clinical needs that could be met. From there they brainstormed solutions, brought them to leaders in the field, and asked for their advice.

It didn't hurt that their faculty adviser was Patrick McCarthy, renowned heart surgeon, professor and chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the Feinberg School of Medicine, head of the division of cardiac surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and codirector of the hospital's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. McCarthy is also an innovator himself, having patented systems for valve operations.

"My job was to help them come up with 50 clinical needs, and they came up with 100, so they were overachievers," McCarthy joked. "I helped them prioritize and whittle that down to some pretty solid projects," he says.

The large cardiovascular team eventually split into two groups, with Periyanayagam and Lubeck's group concentrating on what they call a left ventricle apex device. For most heart surgeries focused on the heart's left ventricle, surgeons must crack open the chest to get at the heart. The group's device would allow surgery on the left ventricle through the skin using a tube. Some surgeries are already performed this way through the femoral artery in the leg, but surgeons have just started doing surgeries through the apex of the heart, Lubeck says.

As part of their system, the team included a device that would close up the hole in the heart and possibly allow for easy access again. At least, that's the plan for now — the team continually tries to improve upon the design. "We're always trying to think of what we can do better," Lubeck says.

McCarthy says he was impressed by both of the cardiovascular teams' ideas and thought they had a future. "They are coming up with really highly sophisticated devices," he says.

To test their device, the team will eventually use cow and pig hearts — a foray into anatomy that some team members hadn't previously experienced. For Lubeck, working with hearts — alive or not — is definitely a new experience. "I never knew what a left ventricle was, and then I saw someone's chest cracked open."

As the team contemplated whether to create a business or sell the idea, Periyanayagam says the course provided an invaluable look at the other side of engineering. "A lot of engineering projects stop before you get to the business stage," she says. "You come up with an idea but you never understand what happens next — like getting lawyers or speaking with business people."

Teaching students this process is the key to an innovative future, Voboril says. "We need to have a continued stream of innovations in our economy, and the students in our class are the drivers who will move us forward."

Improving for the future
For his part, McCarthy says the class also introduced him to Dean Ho and Guillermo Ameer, faculty members in McCormick's biomedical engineering department. McCarthy says he was impressed with their research and hopes to collaborate with them in the future, and Voboril says bringing such faculty together has been a hallmark of the course.

"It has been outstanding," Voboril says. "I find that in an academic environment, oftentimes faculty don't see people outside their department. We've got very close collaborative relationships among the four schools, and I think that could be a benchmark in terms of how to break down walls and take full advantage of all the University has to offer."

Michael MarascoThroughout the next year, Marasco says the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation will continue to create new courses for students with the entrepreneurial spirit. For example, Marasco and William J. White, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, will offer a Principles of Entrepreneurship course to underclassmen for the first time this spring. The course is already full with 120 students registered, and the waiting list is 40 students long. And while the center improves upon Medical Innovation, it will look at creating new courses with similar structures.

The center also will soon launch both an advisory board and a venture capital advisory board, which Marasco hopes will be a resource for faculty. "I think we're making a difference here at McCormick," he says. "Great innovations that never leave the lab are not great innovations. They have to be applied. That's what engineering is all about — an application of science. And we represent a way to actually do that."

—Emily Ayshford