By Diane Weidner, Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning

It was an exciting afternoon on April 17th as seven student teams from the Montreal Surgical Innovation Program pitched their projects before a full auditorium at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). Dr. Jake Barralet, Director of Innovation at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine and Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning, opened the event and thanked the many physicians, partners and judges who have mentored the students and supported the growth of this innovative program that was founded by MUHC Surgeon-in-chief Dr. Gerald Fried.

This graduate level program supports Montreal-based students in MedTech training and is offered jointly by the Department of Surgery at McGill University, the John Molson School of Business and the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Concordia University, and the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS).  It aims to transform learners into innovators by supporting students in a needs-finding and screening process within the MUHC network. Multidisciplinary teams of students from surgery, engineering, science and business administration visit the hospitals to assess needs, and then identify a problem that can be resolved by the development of a commercially viable MedTech innovation. The teams translate their education towards team-driven solutions as they design new medical devices and technology that will improve health care and surgical training.

The program is generously supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada through its Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) initiative, Innovation at the Cutting Edge. Now in its fourth year, the program is no longer exclusive to surgery. This year’s cohort was made up of 42 students who worked in seven teams to cover various clinical fields including gynecology, plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery, cardiac surgery, radiology/oncology and general surgery. All teams were led by experienced doctors, and one team worked in collaboration with our industrial partner, Kinova Robotics. The final pitch event allowed the teams to present their carefully-designed solution to an identified need in front of a live audience, including a panel of judges representing accelerators, industry, legal, consulting and investments, entrepreneurs and surgeons.

Judges (left to right): Adam Hart, Orthopaedic Surgeon and Innovation Fellow; Steven Arless, Professor-in-Practice at McGill and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Centech; Dustin Arless, Soundbite Medical Solutions; Luc Giguère, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Centech; Stuart Kozlick, Professor-In-Practice, McGill Faculty of Medicine & Chief of Healthcare Technology Strategies, BCF; Erick Fortin, VP Engineering & Innovation Healthcare CAE; Edna Chosack, Medical Technologies Director, District 3 Innovation Center.

“Over the last four years, I have seen this program reach new heights,” said Steven Arless, one of the seven judges. We witnessed high-calibre pitches and projects today, which made our decision-making very challenging.”  It was very enriching for the students to receive advice and feedback from experienced mentors on all aspects of their project, from needs analysis to design to commercialization.

This year, the students had extra motivation, thanks to a generous incentive by Centech. Mr. Luc Giguère, Entrepreneur-In-Residence and Acceleration Program Manager at Centech, presented the awards. “In recognition and appreciation of the collaboration between the McGill University Surgical Innovation Program and the Centech MedTech Acceleration Program, we are pleased to offer a modest prize for entrepreneurial excellence.”   A total of $1,000 was awarded to the top three teams, as follows: First Place Team, $500; Second Place Team, $300; Third Place Team, $200. In addition, all three teams will be automatically accepted into one of the Centech’s upcoming MedTech Acceleration Programs. As is now customary, a ‘grand-prix’ champagne magnum was awarded to the team delivering the best pitch.

The top prize was awarded to FemTherapeutics, a team made up of seven female students who proposed an innovative personalized solution for pelvic organ prolapse, a condition that will affect one in every 10 women worldwide during their lifetime. As team member Inara Lalani explained, “There is a lack of innovation in women’s health; the pessary has not been reimagined since the 1950s.”  With the current technology available, her team proposed a proprietary measuring device to 3D print custom pessaries based on the patient’s anatomy, providing women who suffer from this condition with a comfortable, hygienic and biodegradable option.

All seven members of this multidisciplinary team bring their own expertise to the table.  Lydia Aguirre is a materials scientist who is currently completing her MBA at Concordia; she is interested in research and development with a focus on innovation, and was grateful for the opportunity and access that the program provided. “The medical environment is one of the toughest. It’s a very regulated industry. Having access to the hospital environment and the mentorship of seasoned experts really allowed us to identify an important need and come up with a solution that has the potential to change lives,” she explains.  Inara adds, “In the hospital, it’s all about passion. We see that little changes can have a huge impact and make all the difference to the patients.”

FemTherapeutics is now incorporated and moving forward with this business venture, armed with a fully developed proof of concept to show investors and numerous prizes under their belt, including a recent second place win in the Health Sciences Track at the McGill Dobson cup. “This multidisciplinary approach is very unique and increases our odds of being successful,” adds Negin Ashouri, a graduate student in Computer Sciences at Concordia. “We learned how to identify our capabilities and resources, to come together and understand our different specialities. We realize that this is something we can do.”

The second-place team, OathMedTech, developed the concept of the C-Align, a device that aims to reduce surgery time and radiation exposure by tracking the movement of the C-Arm, a medical imaging device. This technology will also help reduce frustration and improve accuracy, leading to better patient outcomes.

As the project manager for the Oath MedTech team with a background in kinesthesiology, Genevieve Lambert is passionate about understanding the human body through movement and using technology to improve patient care. Her team worked closely with their clinical supervisor to carefully observe how the C-Arm device is used in the hospital setting and to consider every aspect of its movement in order to enhance the process, not disrupt it. Genevieve switched universities halfway through her studies to complete her Master’s Degree in Experimental Surgery at McGill and, as she explains, “It was a beautiful surprise that provided me with new collaborations. This program taught us about the process of innovation—how it comes from observing and building an idea from the problem within its clinical context, which makes it more relevant when it comes to the solution. The ability to develop our ideas in a real-world, friendly competition really brought out the best in us. This has been one of the most rewarding years for me in terms of personal and professional skills acquisition.”

The C-Align project will be moving forward as the team prepares for a second round of prototyping, ensures regulatory compliance and undertakes studies so that they can commercialize the technology.

The third-place team, Denovogen, proposed a way to improve communication and visualization during minimally invasive surgery. Their ARiS™ platform uses augmented reality software to enable better teaching in the operating room by allowing surgeons to point to anatomical structures, illustrate concepts and overlay images onto an intraoperative video feed.

“This program offers a chance to start with a real problem and build a solution with a multidisciplinary team,” explains Alex Paun, who just completed his Master’s Degree in Experimental Surgery at McGill. “We were able to observe the surgeons in an OR setting; the way they operate and set up their OR is important when thinking of solutions. This exposure allowed us to design a product that addresses their problem head on.”  His team mate, Jean-Simon Lavertu, an engineering student at ÉTS, couldn’t agree more.  “What we noticed is that we all have our blind spots. I provided a non-medical perspective, which was helpful as I had no idea what I was looking at in the OR. This inspired the idea to create a teaching tool that would clarify what we’re looking at and improve communication.”

Congratulations to all of the teams for their innovative projects and for their enthusiastic approach to working as part of a multidisciplinary team!

May 9, 2019