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In first such U.S.-based exercise, UB BLAST introduced engineering, medical & business students to trials & triumphs of launching a medical startup
By the University at Buffalo
This summer, five teams of University at Buffalo students who didn’t know each other from Adam 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. Students participating in UB BLAST (business, law and surgical technology) had five days in July to develop a solution and a startup.
Along the way, these 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 3-D-printed company logo. They learned from local and international startup gurus and mentors, dedicated UB surgery residents and each other.
When they started out, most didn’t know what an anastomotic leak was. By week’s end, during a “Shark Tank”-style pitchfest, judges evaluated a range of sophisticated and elegant solutions using technologies like smart paper, gold nanoparticles, biomarker assays, radiofrequency ID and hydrogel membranes.
Winners ‘Leapfrog’ to Panasci
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 went on to form an LLC, has applied 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 next March.
“UB BLAST is a feeder program to the Panasci,” said Steven Schwaitzberg, M.D., professor and chair of surgery in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, 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, Schwaitzberg explained.
“The story is the struggle,” he said. “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 “struggle” included a cook-off – with BLAST judges doing the cooking – in the Buffalo Bisons kitchen at Sahlen Field, generously donated for the event by Jonathan Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations and UB Council member.
Dinner had a competitive edge. Each team was provided the ingredients they had to use. The time crunch was strict: ingredients by 3 p.m., plating for 60 people by 7.
Cook-off team members consisted of some of the BLAST judges, who were officials from industry partners: Boston Scientific, Mariner Endosurgery, Cook Medical, 43North and Techstars.
The challenge was that they had to use authentic Buffalo ingredients for one of four mystery courses. The dessert team won, with a unique and delicious creation made out of Bison Chip Dip, Chobani yogurt and loganberry. (Recipe available upon request.)
“The cook-off became a perfect microcosm of the rest of the week, with models of leadership, pitching and judging,” Schwaitzberg said. “We saw it in real time.”
It was the same kind of evolution and progression the teams saw throughout the week, as business and engineering students learned to think more like surgeons, and medical students learned to think more like business strategists.
They exhibited “competitive collegiality,” where members of competing teams helped each other out. They attended lectures by nationally known experts from the worlds of technology and medicine. And in a seamless demonstration of collaboration, the Jacobs Institute, one of BLAST’s local partners, decided to hold its “Future of Medicine” lecture with bioscience innovator David Spetzler during that week as another BLAST event.
From BEST to BLAST
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.
“The medical school building in and of itself is an innovation hub,” Schwaitzberg said.
During BLAST, students learned procedures in the Amin Tjota, M.D., Ph.D. ’91; Melawati Yuwono, M.D.; 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 last August, I said, ‘I don’t need to go around the world; I have all these students at UB,’ ” Schwaitzberg said. “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 continued, BLAST is rooted in what’s happening in Buffalo now, with momentum stemming from strategic investments from New York state and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo downtown on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and in the Jacobs School building.
BLAST was designed to inspire “would be” entrepreneurs and innovators but, Schwaitzberg pointed out, the most powerful outcome was the personal transformation each of the students experienced over the course of the week. He noted: “The real story is that these kids started out saying ‘I can’t do this in a week’ and then … they did.”