Published October 9, 2019
Facing a deadline of just five days, UB student teams worked together in a competition to address a critical problem plaguing colorectal surgeries.
Students participating this summer in UB BLAST (Business, Law and Surgical Technology) came together in a startup boot camp to develop a medical device to solve the devastating and costly surgical complication of anastomotic leaks.
Such leaks — occurring after some colorectal surgeries — are difficult to detect early. The consequences are severe: an ostomy bag, sepsis or even death. The potential market could be worth $2.5 billion.
During the event, five teams of medical, business and engineering students learned how to suture and use robotic instruments, develop business plans and conduct patent searches while also developing a startup company identity complete with a 3D-printed company logo.
When they started out, most didn’t know what an anastomotic leak was. By week’s end, during a “Shark Tank”-style pitch fest, judges evaluated a range of sophisticated and elegant solutions using technologies like smart paper, gold nanoparticles, biomarker assays, radio-frequency identification and hydrogel membranes.
The winner was Limitless, which created a device that measures the pH of fluid leaking as a warning sign of a problem.
The team, which is forming a limited liability company, will also apply for a provisional patent and will now skip the initial rounds of the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, one of higher education’s most prestigious startup contests, and advance straight to the semifinals in March 2020.
“UB BLAST is a feeder program to the Panasci,” says Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, professor and chair of surgery and founding director of UB BLAST. “The winning team automatically leapfrogs to the semifinals.”
While the birth of a new startup and a possible solution to a devastating complication of colorectal surgery was the event’s most concrete success, that’s only the beginning, says Schwaitzberg.
“The story is the struggle,” he notes. “It was the crucible of real life: ‘I need more time.’ ‘You can’t have more time.’ It was ‘go suffer for a week.’ And then it all came out so much better than we imagined.”
The idea for BLAST came from a program called Business Engineering and Surgical Technologies (BEST) held in Strasbourg, France. Schwaitzberg was keynote speaker there last summer.
That competition invites applications from professionals working in surgery, business and engineering who compete intensely for a week on a single surgical problem and develop an innovative solution to solve it using minimally invasive surgical techniques.
While BEST recruits globally, Schwaitzberg realized he had a talented, energetic pool of students to recruit from at UB, as well as state-of-the-art facilities in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“The medical school building in and of itself is an innovation hub,” Schwaitzberg says.
The event “provided surgical skills laboratories which allowed us to practice in vivo robotic and laparoscopic surgical techniques,” says second-year medical student Blake Kruger, a member of Limitless, the winning team.
“These opportunities are incredibly rare for medical students and having such unique insights into resident training, the manual proficiencies required of a surgeon, and how the operating room is ripe with potential areas of innovation was immensely helpful in guiding my thinking as I continue to develop in medicine, entrepreneurship and public health,” he adds.
Kruger says the most interesting thing he learned from working with students from other disciplines was that the most effective teams are truly interdisciplinary.
“Our team coalesced our knowledge of business administration, public health, engineering, medicine, communication and entrepreneurship in this competition and I was immensely excited by how natural it felt for us to work together,” he says.
Third-year medical student Jordan Levine echoed the sentiments about working with others from different disciplines.
”Working within an interdisciplinary team has shown me how far removed I was from how ideas actually come to fruition,” he says.
“Doctors might be the ones using these technologies, but it takes a team of motivated people from diverse professional backgrounds to establish logistics, get funding, get through the U.S. Food & Drug Administration process and bring those tools to market,” Levine notes.
Levine says his biggest takeaway from the event was gaining an understanding of the systematic approach to the process of innovation and development of emerging technologies.
“Working on the da Vinci robot was perhaps the first time I've ever thought ‘I can do this every day for the rest of my life and be happy.‘“
“Between the challenge itself and the variety of lectures and resources, UB BLAST has allowed me to exercise a sense of practical creativity, inspiring the pursuit of the development and utilizations of innovative technologies moving forward in my career,” Levine says.
During BLAST, students learned procedures in the Amin Tjota, MD, PhD ’91, Melawati Yuwono, MD, and Tjota Family Advanced Procedures Suite, and in UB RISE, the Jacobs School’s full-service medical training and surgical simulation center. RISE stands for Research, Innovation, Structural, Simulation, Education and Engineering.
“When I came back to Buffalo from France last August, I said, ‘I don’t need to go around the world; I have all these students at UB,’” Schwaitzberg says. “And because they’re all at UB, we have the opportunity to keep the teams together so they can improve upon the work, even after BLAST is over.”
That’s because, he continues, BLAST is rooted in what’s happening in Buffalo now, with momentum stemming from strategic investments from New York State and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo downtown on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and in the Jacobs School building itself.
BLAST was designed to inspire “would be” entrepreneurs and innovators, but Schwaitzberg points out, the most powerful outcome was the personal transformation each of the students experienced over the course of the week.
“The real story is that these kids started out saying ‘I can’t do this in a week’ and then … they did,” he notes.