BioInnovate programme puts fresh eyes on medtech innovation

New approach can lead to fresh perspectives and innovations in model based on Stanford programme

Fresh eyes can offer new perspectives and innovations

Fresh eyes can offer new perspectives and innovations


Why do you do things a particular way? Is it because you have always done them that way? Fresh eyes can offer new perspectives and innovations, and that is the premise behind BioInnovate Ireland.

The programme for medtech innovation immerses teams in clinical environments for weeks on end so they can spot problems, come up with solutions and start developing them commercially.

Running since 2011, BioInnovate Ireland has become a “start-up engine”, according to Ian Quinn, founder of Irish medtech company Creganna and a former chair of BioInnovate Ireland’s advisory committee.

He saw the look-and-learn model in action during a visit to Stanford University’s Biodesign programme in California, and was impressed enough to mention it to NUI Galway president Dr Jim Browne when seated beside him at a dinner. “I hadn’t intended to talk to him about it,” recalls Quinn. “It was just conversation – and he went with the idea.”

Steps to success

BioInnovate Ireland’s 10-month process, which models itself on Stanford’s approach, first trains fellows to look for problems and then find the best way to try to solve them, explains programme director Mark Bruzzi, professor of biomedical engineering at NUI Galway.

“We recruit people from various different backgrounds – engineering, medicine, business and science – and we put them together in teams, then we prepare them to focus initially on clinical needs rather than invention,” he explains. “They also get to meet investors, CEOs and entrepreneurs and clinical professionals who can enable them to understand the landscape for medtech innovation.”

Next stop is full-time immersion in hospitals and clinics in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and internationally, where the BioInnovate fellows observe practices for several weeks in specific clinical areas, such as cardiovascular disease, ENT or urology.

“They look for problems anywhere there is a lot of pain, infection, complications and costly services,” says Bruzzi. “They find hundreds of problems, there is no shortage, and then they go and validate those problems in other clinical settings, including some visiting the Mayo Clinic in the US.”

Filtering the ideas

The result is a mountain of data and ideas that the teams whittle down to a more manageable handful of potential solutions, which they then explore further to see if they are feasible.

One to two ideas or solutions finally emerge for each team, and they map out clinical studies and business and reimbursement models that would suit.

A stepping stone to de-risking the technology may then involve Enterprise Ireland commercialisation funding before moving to private investment, explains Bruzzi.

Innovation engine

To date, BioInnovate Ireland has seen 10 or so new medical technology ideas emerge into that pipeline. They include a device developed by EMBO Medical to block blood vessels in diseased or damaged areas of the body, Signum Surgical’s device to help heal troublesome perianal fistulas and a wearable device being developed by Kite Medical to monitor urinary reflux in children.

Not everyone who goes through BioInnovate Ireland, which is supported by Enterprise Ireland and several medtech companies, goes on to work on the ideas after the programme, notes Bruzzi.

“It is important that we can prepare people for different career pathways – some will go into multi-nationals, some will go into start-up companies that are not necessarily their own, and some of the doctors will go back to medicine more aware of how to take a product from identification right through to a viable product opportunity.”

Open mind

So what is the magic? One key is having variety of backgrounds on each team and another is being trained to keep an open mind at the outset, according to Quinn.

“It’s the discipline of not having your own favourite invention in mind but opening up and cleaning out your mind and generating the hundreds of needs without thinking too deeply about them,” he says. “Then the setting of the criteria by which they will be reduced ideally down to one.”

Quinn believes that the model could be useful to boost innovation in other sectors, and he welcomes the new TechInnovate programme starting in NUI Galway, which will kick off later this year.

Embedding in technology

“TechInnovate is essentially a technology entrepreneurship fellowship,” explains programme director Dr John Breslin. “It models the BioInnovate structure so you have a 10-month fellowship programme where you identify, invent and implement, and we have added ‘iterate’ to that process.

“Non-medtech tech solutions would probably be implemented quicker and therefore you can spend a bit more time refining them and iterate at the end.”

The programme will focus both on hardware and software, and Breslin is currently looking at potential areas of interest, including defence, tourism, banking, and manufacturing connected devices for the “internet of things”.

“The model, especially the embedding part, is hugely valuable,” says Breslin, who is senior lecturer in electronic engineering at NUI Galway and a co-principal investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

“A lot of start-ups can rush into creating a technology solution for a problem that they are not fully sure exists yet, so having this six-to-eight-week immersion period in an area where they normally wouldn’t get access to is hugely valuable, and hopefully we can facilitate that.”

Cancer diagnosis: supporting rehabilitation

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, the focus is, understandably, on treatment. But as more people live with or survive the disease, what about support for their more general health?

Dr Chris McBrearty is setting up outpatient rehabilitation facilities to deliver those services. “I think in the coming years we will see much more focus on cancer survivorship and rehabilitation, and what’s on offer to support patients in Ireland at the moment is there in pockets, but we want to offer a comprehensive service that includes tackling issues like fatigue, sexual health, healthy diet and so on.”

Called Strive Clinic, the initial focus will be on cancer rehabilitation and on pelvic health, but McBrearty hopes to grow and widen the specialisms further down the road.

He discovered the entrepreneurial spark that is driving his work while taking part in the BioInnovate Ireland programme. McBrearty had studied medicine and saw the medtech fellowship as a “bridge” to a less clinical career, perhaps in project management.

“I never thought I was going to become an entrepreneur out of it, that hadn’t been my plan going into it,” he says. “But during the BioInnovate programme this entrepreneur in me woke up that I never really knew was there. Everything that I am doing now developed from a change in mindset that happened during BioInnovate.”

Ostomy patients: funding secured for device designed to reduce skin problems

When industrial designer Rhona Hunt took part in the BioInnovate medtech innovation programme, she and her colleagues noticed that patients who needed an ostomy bag to collect material from their small bowel often had skin problems.

“The contents of the bag come from the small bowel, and they can be quite acidic,” she explains.

“So these patients have very high rates of skin complications, and based on observations we had seen and some clinical literature research we found that there was a need here.”

The BioInnovate team identified a clinical need and put it through various filters – it passed the tests, and now Hunt and biomedical engineer Dr Kevin Kelleher are based at the University of Limerick, where they have secured commercialisation funding from Enterprise Ireland to develop a user-friendly device, Ostoform.

Hunt believes her time with BioInnovate Ireland gave her a good overview of innovation in medtech.

“We looked at lots of different aspects of commercialisation of a product, such as working with clinicians and patients, the regulatory processes, what is your reimbursement category and how would you distribute a product,” she says.

“For me in previous work I would have been designing at the front-end of projects, so it is interesting to learn how you commercialise a product and bring it from A to B, how you get it to a patient.”

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