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Medical Innovation Lab
An interdisciplinary student team designed a prototype for a surgical tool, which they presented to faculty during winter quarter 2008. From left: Jason Kunze (NU Law '09), McCormick Professor and Senior Associate Dean Richard Lueptow, Akbar Rahman (NU Feinberg School of Medicine '08), Peter Sui (Kellogg '08) and Kellogg Professor Alicia Löffler  Photo © Mary Hanlon

Medical Innovation Lab puts new spin on 'operations' management

Hands-on course gives students the tools to create products that help physicians and patients

By Rebecca Lindell

As the five-hour procedure draws to a close, the Northwestern team compiles a list of unmet medical needs. They brainstorm for devices that could make the surgery easier or the patient's recovery less painful. The group includes two medical students, two engineering students, a law student — and two part-time Kellogg MBA students, Bhawani Singh and Bin Li.

The students are enrolled in Medical Innovation, a new interdisciplinary course that focuses on product development for the biomedical industry. Over two quarters, professors from the Northwestern medical, law, engineering and business schools guide students through the innovation lifecycle, from ideation to prototyping, legal protection, market sizing and business plan development. At the end of the course, the students present their prototype to a panel of potential investors.

Out of the 11 teams that participated in the class this year, nine are incorporating to develop the products they created.

"The breadth of training that this class provides is invaluable," says Singh, who wants to bring about technologies that improve patient outcomes. "I don't think you can get that in such a short time anywhere else."

Singh's team noted the difficulty in controlling pain after cardiovascular surgery and sought to create an alternative to pain pumps and narcotics. They produced a biodegradable polymer infused with pain medication, to be inserted in a patient at the end of surgery. The polymer releases the medication gradually, and as it does so, it dissolves.

Each member of the team weighed in on the idea's viability: the medical students on the clinical value of the device; the engineers on its technical feasibility; the law student on intellectual property issues; and the Kellogg students on its commercial potential. Throughout the experience, the team members learned to speak each other's language and appreciate alternative views.

"We had to trust each other's judgment on the areas in which our teammates had more expertise," Singh says. "We had to work a little harder to make sure we were communicating, but we did so, because without that we couldn't move forward."

Alicia Löffler, Kellogg professor and director of biotechnology, says that is among the top goals of the course.

"Having an experiential class in this field is key, because you get to experience the whole process of product development," Löffler says. "But what's most important is that these students learn how to perform in cross-functional teams. The expectations, the incentives, even the language of each group is so different. But that's exactly what they'll face when they go to work for a biomedical company. The better they understand each other's mindset, the more successful they will be."

Brian Flyg '08 and his team met that challenge. The group designed a device to help neurosurgeons implant wires in the head. The device is an improvement over the tool doctors currently use, which Flyg says is "very unwieldy."

"Our model has an improved tip for difficult tissue, and a better handle for maneuverability," he says.

But Flyg and his team only developed this product after scrapping their initial plans for another invention, an infection-control device that seemed promising in theory but less workable in practice.

"One of the reasons I was so impressed with this class was that it allowed us to take our knowledge from other classes and apply it in a safe environment," he says. "It gave us the opportunity to take a risk and 'fail,' and then take that knowledge and apply it to something new.

"That's what happens in real life," Flyg adds. "You learn entrepreneurship primarily by doing it, and that's why experiential learning is so important. Here, we had phenomenal resources, the support of the faculty and the ability to leverage expert knowledge. We were given everything we needed to learn and succeed."

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