Using foam, aluminum foil, pipe cleaners, Slinkies and other prototyping materials, teams of clinicians, engineers and entrepreneurs designed prototype solutions for problems faced in clinical practice.

Using foam, aluminum foil, pipe cleaners, Slinkies and other prototyping materials, teams of clinicians, engineers and entrepreneurs designed prototype solutions for problems faced in clinical practice.

Armed with duct tape, pipe cleaners, aluminum foil, sponges and other supplies from Home Depot, teams of BWH clinicians, MIT engineers and others were ready to tackle some of the challenges that face surgeons in the operating room every day. As Daniel Salvati, administrative director for Research in the Department of Surgery watched, ideas flowed and prototypes began to take shape.

“There was so much energy in the room,” Salvati said of the Solution Build Session at the end of November. “There was a learning curve for some of the engineers, but they were quickly picking things up, and there was a lot of interaction at the tables.”

The evening’s activities were part of the Surgery Innovation Series – a group of events put together by the Brigham Innovation Hub (iHub). The innovation series is designed to promote a culture of problem-solving and entrepreneurship by bringing together BWHers and experts in fields outside of health care, including engineering and business. Ultimately, successful collaborations could lead to long-term partnerships and new products and services that may improve the delivery of care, reduce operational inefficiencies or improve health outcomes.

An Idea Gains Momentum

The Surgery Innovation Series started out with just the spark of an idea. BWH surgeon Ali Tavakkoli, MD, had suggested that Salvati and his manager, Edward Habermehl, senior director of Administration and Operations for Surgery, talk to Lesley Solomon, executive director of iHub, about ways to jumpstart innovative, multidisciplinary projects. Solomon immediately suggested that Salvati come to a brainstorming session for the Innovation Series for the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care to see firsthand how the series worked.

At the brainstorming session, known as the Problem Pitch Session, physicians were asked to brainstorm “pain points” – problems faced everyday in clinical practice that can lead to delays or inaccuracies in patient care, diagnosis or treatment.

“There were many physicians in the room, and Bruce Levy, MD, [Division Chief of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Division] stood up to kick things off. At first, people seemed apprehensive, but once one person started speaking, more and more people got up to share their ideas,” Salvati recalled.

As they spoke, members of the iHub team jotted down their ideas on a whiteboard. At the end of the session, the attendees voted on what ideas would make the most sense to try to tackle.

Salvati left the session inspired.

“I thought: ‘If Pulmonary can do it, Surgery can do it,’” he said.

Salvati and Habermehl brought the idea of the Surgery Innovation Series to the department’s research committee and invited representatives from iHub to speak at the next faculty meeting. With the support of leadership, the idea gained traction and support.

Problems and Prototypes

At Surgery’s two-hour Problem Pitch Session in October, seven surgeons identified nine problems that they faced in practice. These included the challenge of finding parathyroid glands during surgery; the development of seroma after hernia surgery; and difficulties removing stents from the aorta in the abdomen.

“It was a big range of ideas across a really big range of surgical areas: ENT, Thoracic, General Surgery,” said Melissa Spinks, iHub manager. “Part of what I love about these sessions is that people get to out of their everyday routine and are faced with a different perspective. This confluence of thought can be an important part of the innovation process.”

In preparation for the next session, the iHub recruited engineers from its Engineering Council to work with the physicians to brainstorm solutions and begin building prototypes at the event. The iHub put together an in-depth problem brief – including what the surgical site looks like, what competition exists in the space, and how many patients have the problem – for the engineers to read in advance to understand the problem at hand.

The iHub also recruited entrepreneurs from the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School.

To accommodate surgeons’ schedules, the second session, the Solution Build Session, took place from 4 to 8 p.m. on a Friday night. More than 28 people participated and six teams each worked on a different solution.

“Each team had at least one MD, an engineer and an entrepreneur,” said Spinks. “The atmosphere in the room was exciting – people were excited to have such different but very capable partners come together around these important problems. You could see each team evolving – writing down and then crossing out design criteria. That visual progress makes things slightly competitive too and encourages others to keep iterating.”

The end result of the session: early stage prototypes and new collaborations. Several of the teams are continuing to work together on their projects and continue to work with iHub to advance their solutions.

“We can start to help them build out the teams, connect with the right people, and help get their prototypes to the next level,” said Spinks, and she added “we also make sure they are aware of funding opportunities that can help move their projects forward.”

Any department or division interested in participating in an Innovation Series can reach out to to learn more.