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Gaining a Global Perspective: Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Michigan Medicine and Beyond

Seven thousand miles away, I arrived in Samoa, a Pacific Islander Nation with some of the highest rates of chronic disease on our planet. Nearly half of the population in Samoa has diabetes, placing this community at high risk of diabetic retinopathy, a debilitating condition that leads to blindness if left untreated. I boarded the plane to Samoa with a low-cost, portable camera that captures images of the back of the eye, eager to design a creative solution to a costly problem. Nearly 3,000 images later, our team had implemented the first remote eye screening program in the South Pacific, detecting sight-threatening diabetes-associated eye disease and expediting the referral of patients to local care.

In one of the most remote regions of our world, I witnessed the role that medical innovation and capacity-building can serve in addressing barriers in accessing critical screening and specialty care. I knew that I wanted to continue exploring the ways that innovation and entrepreneurship can be used to address global healthcare challenges while in medical school.

Our Ross MBA team alongside members of the TechnoCoRe Catalyst team at the Technological Institute of the Philippines (T.I.P.)

The University of Michigan: A Hub for Healthcare Innovation
Shortly after matriculating at the University of Michigan Medical School, I became involved in Sling Health, a student-run incubator that brings together multidisciplinary teams of medical, business and engineering students to solve problems in healthcare. As an M1, I joined a team focused on addressing ‘pain points’ in the operating room. After speaking with over 160 surgeons in the Department of Surgery at Michigan Medicine to understand the problem more deeply, we developed Surgical ComfORt, an ergonomic surgical retractor system, which was a first-place finalist at Michigan Sling Health Demo Day.

Throughout the discovery and prototype development process, I gained an appreciation for the immense support that the University of Michigan ecosystem provides student entrepreneurs. After my time working with other medical, business and engineering students in our Sling Health team, we were able to participate in the Michigan Business Challenge, gaining additional seed funding for our device development, as well as mentorship and feedback from experts in the field. I learned that the support extends even beyond the medical school. Our team was able to participate in programming through the Zell Lurie Institute at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, including the Pinkert Healthcare Accelerator and Dare to Dream Program, which provide a healthcare innovation curriculum coupled with longitudinal mentorship and grant funding. These programs not only sparked an early desire to pursue a dual degree alongside medicine, but also connected me to incredible perspectives related to the business of healthcare.

Group of people sitting on one side of a table smiling at camera

Interviewing students from the College of Electronics Engineering and the College of Business at T.I.P.

At the end of my M1 year, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enroll in a Path of Excellence. The Healthcare Innovation path seemed like the perfect fit to build a strong foundation in innovation and entrepreneurship. From bringing in real patients at Michigan Medicine facing problems requiring an innovative solution to providing a framework for medical students to solve unmet medical needs, the path has served an important role in supporting my innovation work. I’ve been able to serve as a team lead for PostOR, developing a wearable ergonomic sensor to provide real-time, intraoperative feedback on ergonomic behavior to surgeons. Participating in the Michigan Surgical Innovation Accelerator course, led by Dr. Rishi Reddy and Candice Stegink, has been one of the highlights of my time in medical school, allowing me to work with incredible faculty surgeons, Drs. Kristin Chrouser, Tasha Hughes, Jeffrey Kozlow; resident urologists Drs. Mark Farha (MD/MBA ’22) and Renee Cole; and learn from materials science engineers and experts in the sensor space.

Our multidisciplinary action project (MAP) team alongside engineering students at T.I.P.

Global Commercialization: Integrating a Business Lens
Supporting innovation on a global scale, I am now wrapping up a semester-long multidisciplinary action project (MAP) at the Ross School of Business as part of the MBA program. MAP is a unique aspect of the MBA program that allows students to work full-time with companies to solve real business challenges. For the past seven-weeks, I have been working with my classmates to develop a commercialization pathway for technologies stemming from the Technological Institute of the Philippines (T.I.P.). This project is a partnership with the William Davidson Institute, which drives economic development and supports business needs in low- to middle-income countries.

Visiting the world’s smallest active volcano, Taal, in the Batangas, Philippines

Our team was able to travel to Quezon City, Philippines in March to speak with T.I.P. faculty, students and members of their TechnoCoRe Catalyst team to understand how their current curricula and programs are driving commercialization activities. Over the course of our time in the Philippines, we were able to speak with student innovators across all engineering disciplines. From technologies that sense the readiness of cacao for harvesting to those that leverage virtual reality for disaster preparedness, engineering students at T.I.P. provided me with a wealth of knowledge on the commercialization process. Working with T.I.P. has also allowed me to come ‘full circle,’ now focusing on strategies to support student and faculty innovators in bringing their ideas and products to market.

…And of course, our MBA team found time to explore the Philippines, trying lots of Filipino dishes, exploring the incredible biodiversity and finding the world’s smallest active volcano (Taal). I am grateful for the opportunities that UMMS and the Ross School of Business have provided me during my dual degree and for the global perspective to become a more effective physician leader and innovator.

On the Road to Becoming a Physician & Engineer: The Story of EmboFlux

Michael was an eclectic 13-year-old boy that I met during my time as an undergraduate in Biomedical Engineering at Michigan. He was often the loudest, proudest voice in the room and always primed with sporadic conversation topics. As a below-elbow amputee, he had just three design requirements for the 3D-printed prosthetic arm that a team of students and I spent a year creating for him. “Make sure I can tie my shoes with it, make it look like the Terminator’s bionic arm, and make sure I can do multiple pull-ups.” Could a plastic, multicolored, actuated arm design by engineering students accomplish this? To Michael, his disability was really an opportunity to create an assistive medical device that others would marvel at.

An example of a low-cost 3D-printed prosthetic hand made by students at the University of Michigan.

This was my first-ever customer discovery interview. It launched me into a focus on 3D-design, additive manufacturing, and biomechanics during my education. With abundant open-ended design problems in healthcare and engineering, my experience at Michigan taught me to meticulously explore design features, learn to develop the skills needed for a project, and leverage the bright minds and endless resources around me to avoid settling on the answer, “it can’t be done.” I related to Michael in that, when I was a young boy, I never wanted to hear no as an answer. Today, I try to approach innovation, frustrations, and even daily life setbacks with a “challenge accepted” mindset. I hope to serve my patients and colleagues to my full potential with this in the future.

After I started my first year of medical school at the University of Michigan, my first thought was, “well, there goes my engineering degree!” We don’t always cover complex fluid models of the body’s vasculature or learn about in-depth mechanics of interactions between bones/joints (I’m sure my classmates are grateful). We learn practical ways to diagnose, treat, and understand why diseases behave the way they do. But beyond coursework, I have found many ways to keep my spirit of innovation fueled at Michigan. The first was Sling Health, where we formed a project team led by my fellow M1, Danika.

Danika shares my spontaneity in thought, my level of detail in drafting emails, and my desire to painstakingly and completely explore ideas. She brought us together around the goal of addressing a pressing need in healthcare: development of a non-invasive anticoagulant solution that improves extracorporeal membrane oxygenation outcomes and lower costs. ECMO is a technology that acts as an artificial heart or lung for critical care patients who cannot provide enough blood flow or oxygenation on their own. Preventing blood clotting complications within ECMO circuits has great potential to prevent strokes, pulmonary emboli, and numerous other costs and downstream effects.

Our team members also include engineering and business students: Liam, Nundini, Carol, and Noor, who all have experiences ranging from venture capital, research in coagulation and thrombosis, robotics, and even ECMO itself. I absolutely admire Danika’s dedication to involve all members of our team and regularly find resources to support members who are new to ECMO and engineering design. As future physicians, the need to explain complex topics in streamlined ways is so important, and being part of a multidisciplinary team necessitates this. Soon enough, we branded ourselves “EmboFlux.”

Almost immediately, we ran into limitations. It would be much easier to create a device that detects clots rather than dissipates them. Biocompatible device regulatory cycles are also incredibly lengthy and costly if our device was required to interface with blood in any way. Numerous customer discovery interviews pointed this out to us. Time and resources are a major barrier for startups or device design groups. But by exploring prior patent art and recent developments in anticoagulation therapies, our team found a novel way for reducing anticoagulation without directly contacting blood, which allows us to shorten the regulatory timeline and save costs. This was an idea that many clinicians and ECMO researchers were supportive of.

Our team initially competed in the campus-wide Michigan Business Challenge. We’ve received great support and mentorship from Anne Perigo at the Zell Lurie Institute, who worked with us to refine and pitch the importance of our design problem to judges and investors. Anne never hesitated to meet with our team weekly or recommend further individuals to contact for support. What I admire about Emboflux is that our members leveraged almost every resource available to conduct research before launching into device design. We thoroughly defined our problem, referenced existing literature, devised market estimates, and explored competitive solutions. EmboFlux was fortunate to make it to the semi-finals of the Michigan Business Challenge, and we look forward to competing again in future years!

I remember a conversation I had with Danika within our first few months. We marveled at how open and supportive the Michigan Medicine community was to us when we were seeking advice on device design, clinical adaptation, and even devising our first few research studies for the EmboFlux prototype. With a mix of initial intimidation but also intrigue, I truly believe medical school is a great time for innovation. In our flexible M1 curriculum, Danika and I can schedule device tests or attend pitch competitions during the week and complete our curricular requirements and assessments around our schedule, even into the weekend. This has made it easier for us to balance the many duties of a design team with the responsibilities of medical students. The Extracorporeal Life Support Lab at the University of Michigan has also been incredibly supportive in allowing us to conduct tests and receive feedback on device design.

From left to right, Danika Meldrum, Carol Dai, Liam Mathews, Nundini Rawal, and Jasnoor Singh. This is a photo of our team after competing in the Michigan Business Challenge held at the Ross School of Business.

While many of us are new to surgical settings and adapting medical devices effectively, our team also took part in the Surgical Innovation Discovery Course through the Center for Surgical Innovation. Here, we received guidance in prototyping Emboflux for clinical adaptation and conducted more customer discovery interviews to showcase our design and aim for perpetual refinement. With device design comes continuous iterations and regular communication with experts to add modifications or features. Customer discovery will remain a vital part of our team moving forward, and it’s also incredible that we can think of many more stakeholders and bright minds at Michigan we have yet to meet, and that they would have such insightful input for our EmboFlux device. With feedback and advice from Candice Stegink, Jon Campbell, and the many surgical solution experts through SIDC, we really developed a clearer picture of how EmboFlux could find its way to ICUs and ECMO patients without disrupting existing workflows. The healthcare setting provides a whole new set of design criteria I’ve never really experienced in past projects. It has thus been super valuable to have resources like residents, surgical mentors, and researchers so close for advice.

In April 2023, our team was invited to present and pitch EmboFlux at the National Sling Health Demo Day in St. Louis. It was here that we presented our work exploring our clinical problem, market, and initial benchtop studies in a five-minute on-stage pitch. While we were anxious about our presentation or about the questions judges might counter with, we were excited to interact with many individuals who were incredibly curious about EmboFlux. Ranging from surgeons literally on call during the event to undergraduate students, we walked away with numerous contacts for future potential collaborations. We also witnessed presentations from up-and-coming medical devices all designed by future engineers, doctors, and innovators. After an incredible pitch from our spokespersons, Liam and Danika, we were so grateful to have received the National Demo Day’s 1st place award and audience choice for best pitch!

Within our team, I’ve especially admired how individual members are so confident and willing to take initiative on different aspects of our design work. We all bring technical design skills, but our background in ECMO technology, hemostasis research, and effectively pitching to investors has been valuable in creating a well-rounded, multidisciplinary team that can respond to each new problem with “challenge accepted.” I have self-reflected and can think about multiple times where I was unsure of specific aspects of medical device development, regulatory guidelines, the business side of medicine. But so often, I am met with unwavering resolve from our other team members to find the resources necessary to make our path forward more clear. This helps me reinforce my belief in my own abilities and encourages me to approach ambiguity with confidence and intrigue.

Beyond these experiences, numerous other spaces and opportunities within our medical school will allow me to continue exploring my interests in engineering and design through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Path of Excellence, I have already gained vital exposure to design thinking principles and effective interview strategies. Recently, we received the opportunity to interact with patients and brainstorm a user-specific design solution in an ongoing process. I was able to see my colleagues shine and show their willingness to fully explore a healthcare concern prior to proposing innovative ideas. My fellow classmates truly are so multi-faceted, and the field of innovation and design is so fulfilling, even for anyone who may not have a technical background. Your curiosity and novel ideas are always welcome!

In the future, I hope to work on medical device design in low-resource areas, where user-friendly, low-cost, and quickly adaptable engineering devices can be beneficial to address healthcare concerns for underrepresented patients. I look forward to clinical rotations in the coming year, where I will develop even more exposure to workflow and areas of innovation possible in a healthcare setting. Our EmboFlux team also looks forward to further pitch competitions, solution refinement workshops, and helping prevent many complications of ECMO procedures!