Just because you’ve built a better mousetrap, don’t assume the world will beat a path to your door.
From Mind to Market
Every invention starts with a problem. For Jim Geiger, M.D. — a young pediatric surgeon at the U-M Health System in the late 1990s — it was an unwieldy surgical clamp. Geiger often operated on infants with pyloric stenosis — an obstruction in the pyloric muscle that connects the stomach to the small intestine. In the beginning of his career, Geiger had to make a large abdominal incision to reach the pyloric muscle, but with the development of laparoscopic surgery, only a small incision was required. Less invasive surgery was better for the baby, but made it impossible for the surgeon to reach inside and hold the pyloric muscle steady before cutting it. To make it even more cumbersome, the surgical instruments used for the procedure were made for adults.
The more Geiger tried to fit an adult-sized surgical clamp through a tiny incision in a newborn baby, the more he thought there must be a better way to do this.
Geiger sketched out some designs for new pyloric clamps to use on his tiny patients. He shopped them around, but his ideas went nowhere. It takes time and money to develop new medical devices, and Geiger had neither. The market for instruments used in pediatric surgery was too small for companies to justify the investment in new technology.
Then, in 2004, Jim Geiger met Albert Shih, Ph.D., a professor of mechanical engineering who was making a career transition to biomedical engineering. It was a fortuitous match: Shih wanted to collaborate with Medical School faculty who were interested in new medical devices; Geiger needed engineering expertise to develop his pyloric clamp.
Shih assigned the project to a team of senior engineering students enrolled in his design and manufacturing class. Geiger spent a lot of time working with the students to perfect the design for the clamp. He invited them into the operating room to see the surgery. And he came up with money to cover the cost of making a prototype.
With a working prototype and engineering specifications in hand, Shih and Geiger were able to interest executives at a medical device company. The U-M Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) licensed the device to the firm in 2008. Now, more than 10 years after Geiger first came up with the idea for a better surgical clamp, it is finally available to pediatric surgeons around the world.
The story of the pyloric clamp illustrates how difficult and time-consuming it can be to bridge the gap from mind to market, especially when the mind belongs to someone who works at a university.
Even if a faculty member has a terrific idea for a new invention, he or she might need help or have questions about the next steps in the process. Questions like: How do I create a prototype? Is there a manufacturer willing to make my device? Where do I go to connect with the right collaborators?
“We call it the fuzzy front end,” explains Geiger, an associate professor of surgery and executive director of the U-M’s Medical Innovation Center. “It’s the very early stage of a project where it’s still just an idea.”
To help U-M faculty negotiate the “fuzzy front end” of the medical device innovation process, Geiger and Shih created the Medical Innovation Center, or MIC. The center was established in 2008 with nearly $2 million in start-up funding contributed by the Medical School and Department of Surgery, the College of Engineering, School of Dentistry, Office of the Vice President for Research and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research (MICHR).
“Our mission is to positively impact health by encouraging medical innovations that will actually be adopted — made by someone, bought by someone, used by someone,” explains Geiger. “To accomplish this, we work closely with the Office of Technology Transfer. MIC has been characterized as a ‘feeder’ for OTT. By stimulating cross-campus collaboration, advancing innovative concepts and providing early stage technology development, we help supply quality medical innovations for OTT.”
Though it’s less than two years old, MIC has already had some success at soliciting external funding and is looking for more, according to Brenda Jones, the center’s managing director. Warren “Bud” P. Williamson III — a U-M alumnus and chairman of Skye Management in Loveland, Ohio — is MIC’s first private donor. With matching internal funding from MICHR, Williamson established an innovation fund to pay for initial product market assessments and prototype development.
“At U-M, we have a ton of invention and discovery,” says Geiger. “But in most cases, discovery does not directly impact health. That’s one of the fundamental parts of MIC’s mission. We want to be one of the agents that help move that discovery into a commercialized product that can impact people’s lives. It isn’t always a home run on the money-making front.”