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The Role of the Student Engineer in Medicine and Innovation

Opinion

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

The last 50 years have seen many great technical advances in medical treatments, ranging from drug delivery and imaging to skin grafts and prosthetics. These advances—both large and small—have drawn on many fields and have transformed patient care.

When examining the current state of clinical technology, the focus is naturally on the technology and its outcomes, rather than the process that led to that breakthrough. It is a popular notion that such advances are the result of “eureka moments” by individuals working in industry. More often, technical innovation is an iterative process with contributions from people in both academia and industry.

This is no truer than in medicine, where the vast majority of technical creations for clinical use have been the result of extensive collaborations between engineers and clinicians. In many cases, the initial engineering effort is not at a company, but first seeded in an academic engineering environment, where the idea is initiated, developed, and validated in clinical collaborations. Industrial partners can then bring the technology to clinical practice. This tried and true method has given rise to many medical breakthroughs, from novel skin grafts and new drugs, to the pacemaker.

However, lost in this traditional delineation of workflow is the role of student engineers. The standard perception is students learn fundamentals in the classroom, gain experience with senior engineers through internships and employment, and then work their way to collaborate on a clinical problem. But what if this process was initiated earlier, where training is the clinical problem and the result is both a trained engineer and a clinical product?

Such embedded learning experiences have been a hallmark of the relatively new field of biomedical engineering. With the formal creation of the field more than 20 years ago, followed by the rise of biomedical engineering departments (BMEs) at universities, the challenge arose of how to best train these students in engineering practices. In addition to traditional lectures came the idea of the BME Design course. This idea—first implemented at a few universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison—is where students are tasked with solving biomedical and clinical problems for a client under the advisement of a BME professor. The client, often another faculty member in medicine, proposes a real-world problem, and the students must identify the practical and commercial status of the need and then develop a solution. This BME Design concept has been very successful and widely adopted across BME departments, leading to thousands of trained engineers and many successful clinical device prototypes.

Here at the Morgridge Institute for Research, a private biomedical institute affiliated with UW-Madison, we have the BerbeeWalsh Foundation Prototype Pathway, named after its founding donors, which builds on the BME Design concept to ensure that all training and clinical goals are optimally met. This program is highly effective in ensuring real-world training for students who develop a prototype that is most responsive to clinical needs. This program subscribes to the idea of close, hands-on mentorship by both clinicians and engineers. The BerbeeWalsh Prototype Pathway adds to the training component by having several experienced staff engineers who lead intensive study design sessions. Ideas are thoroughly interrogated and often evolve and improve in each session. The engineering student also shadows the clinician as much as possible to observe the clinical process, thereby gaining better insight into the problem at hand.

Over the last three years, the BerbeeWalsh program has also incorporated a number of opportunities designed to not only explore the commercial potential of biomedical devices, but also expose students to fundamental concepts of entrepreneurial development, such as intellectual property, fundraising, and startup creation. This training has been realized in several novel ways. John Morgridge, a Wisconsin School of Business graduate, the chairman emeritus of Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO), and a Morgridge Institute benefactor, started the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp as an intensive training session for students on how to best assess product ideas, as well as how to form and finance technology-based startups. As a result, several of our student products, such as an organ cooler project for organ transplants, have benefited from the access and support of experienced entrepreneurs, including Morgridge and other esteemed colleagues.

Another entity, key to the BerbeeWalsh pathway, is the patent licensing institution for UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). WARF is a nonprofit, independent organization responsible for the intellectual property at UW-Madison and the Morgridge Institute. WARF also takes a direct role in training students through its WARF Ambassador program.

On the business development and startup exploration side, we are fortunate to have the UW-Madison Discovery to Product (D2P) program that helps students transform innovations into impactful products through direct mentorship. Several of our projects have consulted with D2P, resulting in successful spinoff companies. One example is Linectra, a company developing WARF-patented electron beam technology to print metal objects more efficiently and in large-scale quantities, including medical devices.

The normal metrics of programs such as these would be the volume of projects completed and successful devices launched. The BerbeeWalsh Pathway has us focused on an equally important outcome: the trained alumni themselves. We have noted that this trifecta of engineering, clinical experience, and entrepreneurship has placed our students into great positions for their next career steps, be it industry or further academic training.