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Fueling the "Maker Movement"


What if, instead of being the source of a common, and sometimes deadly, health problem, catheters were the solution, wondered Nate Rhodes, a master’s student in bioengineering at the University of Utah. The thin tubes are pervasive in medicine, used in all sorts of procedures to deliver or drain fluids, and they’re the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections. Catheter manufacturers currently use chemical coatings to keep bacteria in check, and providers take care to insert them under sterile conditions and keep them clean. But the coatings aren’t durable; they wear off over time, says Rhodes. “We wanted something that was better at killing bacteria and that didn’t require such close monitoring, something that could be used anywhere in world.”

It’s one of the business strategies promoted by Bench-to-Beside (B2B), an annual competition and incubator program at the U. to coax the inventions of medical, engineering and business students into marketable medical devices. “If you can develop a device that’s affordable to most of the world, but built to U.S. standards, you’re benefitting not just developing countries but helping to lower the cost of health care,” says John Langell, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, director of the U.’s Center for Medical Innovation. Catheter-related infections are costly. More than $400 million is spent treating the most prevalent, urinary tract variety each year. And now that Medicare is no longer reimbursing health care institutions for care related to preventable complications, such as infections, hospitals must pay the tab.

Rhodes and a team of engineering and medical students started by searching the academic literature for existing technologies that might be adapted to their purpose. They looked at ultraviolet light, which many hospitals use to sterilize water. But it damages human cells in the same way that too much sunshine causes Melanoma. Then they stumbled across a study by a group in Glasgow who used visible light –– one wave length of it –– to kill bacteria in burn wards. “They used it in the ambient lighting in the ceiling, and we thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone tried this before with catheters?’” Rhodes said. “We decided, ‘Let’s be the first.’”

B2B is unique in that it’s an incubator for new ideas rather than just a competition. “No one else in country offers anything like it,” Rhodes said. The team was coached by experts on 3D modeling and given legal advice on how to file patents. Business faculty gave them crash courses in how to value a company that doesn’t have a sales record, and the optimal time for hiring a CEO.

Their invention: The bacteria-killing LIGHT LINE Catheter is being tested in the lab. Early results show the device, equipped with a high-intensity narrow spectrum light, is harmless to human cells, but kills 99.99 percent of bacteria. The startup company they created, Veritas Medical LLC has secured nearly $100,000 in cash prizes and grants from competitions. They’re in negotiations with a major device maker to commercialize the property and hope to get it FDA approved and to market by 2016. And every penny Veritas earns goes to its founders who were all undergraduate students when they started the project. “This is how we nurture tomorrow’s inventors and speed discovery of life-sustaining technologies while lowering health costs. This is disruptive innovation,” Langell said.

Since its creation three years ago, the Medical Center for Innovation has grown five-fold. With nearly 50 teams now competing, up from 14 in 2011, B2B is the most popular program. But it started as a beta test for BioInnovate, a master of bionengineering degree track attracting dozens of tech venture-minded graduate and post-doctoral students, each year. This spring also marked the inaugural Games4Health Challenge, a design competition focused on therapeutic video games. Also under construction is a “gap lab,” or simulation center, where gamers can test their designs on patients. The market for health games and apps is huge; Price Waterhouse Coopers pegs its value at $4 billion. Peruse the app store and you’ll already find a glut of apps that promise to help you lose weight, avoid exerting yourself on “bad air” days, or manage your blood sugar. “Consumers have lots of choice, but they have no real way of determining which game is best, or clinically works. The Food and Drug Administration isn’t regulating them,” says Langell. “We’re studying these games, doing research, which the university is really good at, and giving them efficiency ratings.”