Saint Louis University Biomedical Innovation Incubator Works to Improve the Practice of Medicine

By Maggie Rotermund, Media Relations Specialist for Medical Center Communications, Saint Louis University

MEDLaunch Executive Team (Photo by Saint Louis University)

MEDLaunch Executive Team (Photo by Saint Louis University)

After a successful inaugural year, which saw teams of Saint Louis University (SLU) medical, business, law and engineering students seek provisional patents for their designs, the second class of MEDLaunch teams are well on their way to creating the next class of biomedical innovators.

Founded by SLU School of Medicine students, MEDLaunch is a non-profit, biomedical and entrepreneurship incubator that partners Saint Louis University with other local organizations. The program is the product of collaborative efforts between SLU School of Medicine, John Cook School of Business, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology, and SLU School of Law.

As a part of MEDLaunch, participants work in multidisciplinary teams under the guidance of clinical and industry mentors to improve the standard of health care in areas including surgical devices, health information technology and medical diagnostics.

Physicians share ideas for improving daily clinical practice, and teams of students work together to create practical solutions that will improve the practice of medicine.

"We went to doctors and asked [them] what should we fix; what they would work on if they had the time," said founder Andy Hayden, a third-year medical student at SLU.

"Medicine is ripe for innovation," said Richard Bucholz, M.D., professor of neurosurgery at SLU and a member of MEDLaunch's Board of Directors. "These teams can get to the heart of the matter by coming up with solutions and creating a sustainable business model in the process."

Hayden believes that the University was eager to jump into the booming local start-up market in St. Louis, MO. He said, "We had all the pieces in place here at SLU and in the city."

During their first year at SLU, Hayden and friends Anthony Grzeda and Rusdeep Mundae, also now in their third year as SLU medical students, went to Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and associate dean for research, with their idea. Eissenberg put the group in touch with Graeme Thomas and Stephanie Kimzey in the University's Office of Technology Management.

"We were given support from the beginning," said Mundae. "Dr. Eissenberg and Dr. Smith [Gregory Smith, Ph.D., assistant dean of the medical school] could see the big picture with us."

By early May 2015, the MEDLaunch team was pitching to department chairs and doctors at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. The physicians offered the first round of problems to be solved.

The 2015-2016 projects were:

  • Erythrosight: A device to accurately measure blood loss in the operating room, which is especially critical in pediatric patients
  • Pedecare: An approach to preventing foot problems and amputation in diabetes patients
  • Laparozip: A laparoscopic tool for obstetric and gynecological surgeries
  • AutO2: A medical device automating the delivery and weaning of oxygen to hospitalized patients, improving their safety and creating staff satisfaction.

This year, students will attempt to improve patient care through a variety of projects. The 2016-17 projects include:

  • A novel design for an IV catheter
  • A platform for improving patient communication in the emergency department
  • Improving medical simulation lab technologies
  • Remote cardiac rehabilitation
  • Optimization of mechanical ventilation
  • Automated neurologic function evaluation

Alexa Melvin, a senior mechanical engineering student, is the team leader for the team seeking to automate a neurologic function evaluation. "We want to create a robotic device with a camera that could deliver voice commands to patients and record responses," Melvin said. "It would alert nurses to any changes in function."

How MEDLaunch Works
The current teams formed in the fall semester after the MEDLaunch executive team recruited students through tabling at the SLU School of Medicine and Cook School of Business. The executive team culled through resumes and held interviews to find their team leaders for each project. The leaders then picked their teams.

The arc of a MEDLaunch project follows the school calendar. Teams form at the beginning of the school year and present their projects in late spring.

  • July-October: Problem identification and team formation
  • October-December: Initial market evaluation and design approach
  • January-April: Business model creation and iterative prototyping
  • May: Provisional patent filing and LLC (limited liability company) formation

Each team brings together students from unique academic backgrounds, with at least one medical student, one engineering student and one business student on each team.

Once formed, the teams work together to create a new solution to their problem that could be marketed and produced for everyday use. SLU faculty and members of local industries act as advisers for the teams. The entire MEDLaunch group meets monthly for design reviews with mentors and board members.

"The idea is that any of these projects could be spun off into a business,” Hayden said. “It has been impressive to see the teams stay connected and seek out the advice of the business leaders."

The program ends with a Demo Day presentation to local investors and angel networks, with the goal of obtaining seed funding to progress to advanced prototyping, clinical trials and manufacturing. MEDLaunch then works with SLU's Office of Technology Management to devise a plan for any potential start-ups.

"Tech Management helped us clarify the patent process," Hayden said. "The students on the teams own their intellectual property. If their device is workable, they can patent it and form their own LLC."

Teams that choose not to form a business still gain valuable experience as part of MEDLaunch.

"Medical start-ups are hard - a lot of them don't work out," said Mia Harton, MEDLaunch's clinical outreach director and a SLU medical student. "This is guaranteeing experience out of a classroom in medical technology where you get the chance to work with people from across the University. Even if you fail, you are making connections and getting in the mindset of solving problems in medicine."

Mundae agrees. "So many people in pre-med or medical school develop tunnel vision - we are only focused on our end goal," he said. "To get to develop this extra skill set while we are still learning about medicine is just such a great learning experience."

The MEDLaunch executive board includes Hayden (president); Grzeda (vice president); Mundae (vice president of administration); Harton (clinical outreach director); Daniel Pike (vice president of internal affairs); and Michael Beckman (vice president of finance).

The MEDLaunch Board of Directors includes Richard Bucholz, M.D.; Gregory Smith, Ph.D.; Mark Higgins, Ph.D. (dean of the John Cook School of Business); Stephen Buckner, Ph.D. (professor of chemistry); and Jerome Katz, Ph.D. (director of the Billiken Angel Network).