Entrepreneurs pack panel at VISE symposium, alum Tyler-Kabara wows with keynote

ViTAL founder Jenna Gorlewicz (PhD’13) fields a question from the audience at the fourth annual VISE Symposium. (Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)

The world’s smartest technology means nothing if there’s no market for it. And the best business and marketing plan is pointless if there’s not effective engineering to back it up.

One entrepreneur after another hit on that message at Vanderbilt Institute in Surgery & Engineering’s fourth annual symposium, held Dec. 16 in Light Hall. Panelists who designed medical devices and are at various stages of taking them to market shared their triumphs and challenges. A Vanderbilt alumna who is one of the nation’s foremost researchers on brain-computer interfaces, Dr. Elizabeth C. Tyler-Kabara, delivered the symposium’s keynote address.

The first panel was composed of three current or former Vanderbilt University School of Engineering graduate students who went through the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program: Tim Boire with VenoStent, Byron Smith with EndoInSight and Ekawahyu Susilo of SnapDevice Lab.

VISE Director Benoit M. Dawant asks a question. (Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)

I-Corps promotes technology transfer and commercialization by pairing university teams with mentors, getting them out of the lab and requiring that they interview potential customers and competitors.

Smith, whose device provides a low-cost and disposable CO2 insufflation system for colonoscopies, said the program’s result was a shift in his mindset.

“At the university, we say, ‘It’s better for the patient, let’s do it,’” he said. “But in I-Corps, we say, ‘Why is it better for the clinicians?’ Because if you can’t convince them to use it, it’s pointless to move forward.”

ViTAL company founder Jenna Gorlewicz (PhD’13), who designed a haptic response system for tablets to help teach the STEM fields to visually impaired children, spoke up from the audience to share where a major tech transfer pitfall lies.

“Friction comes up when principle investigator is married to a device in its academic form, but the I-Corps customer discovery process calls for a pivot or says it won’t make it past where it is,” she said. “It’s never easy to hear, ‘We’re never going to sell this in its current form.’”

Click here for the Surgery & Engineering Symposium photo gallery.

Gorlewicz moderated the next panel, which included Elizabeth Ann Stringer, chief science officer of Axial Healthcare, InvisionHeart founder Josh Nickols and Neurotargeting founder Pierre-Francois D’Haese, who discussed life at startup companies.

“Things are so fast-paced in a startup,” Stringer said. “It’s not that you get months to develop the design for the next grant. That needs to be written in less than week. You can’t be as exhaustive as in academia. You have to do the best you can and move forward.”

VISE Director Benoit M. Dawant shared data on VISE grants and publications before the keynote lecture by Tyler-Kabara, associated professor of neurological surgery and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Keynote speaker Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara. (Vanderbilt University/Susan Urmy)

Tyler-Kabara earned her MD and a PhD in molecular physiology and biophysics from Vanderbilt.

Her work involves a brain-computer interface that allows quadriplegic patients to move a robotic arm by thinking about it. Her lecture, delivered to an enthralled, standing-room-only audience, included several videos of patients learning how to perform fine motor tasks with it, such as feeding themselves. She explained graphics that outlined the arm’s shared control setup and the use of magnetoencephalograms for pre-surgical brain mapping for implants.

Tyler-Kabara, who holds a bachelor’s degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, estimated she is five years from a fully implanted system and said neural stem cells are the long-term key to her research.

“Hopefully, we’ll be getting to this when I’m ready to retire, and I’ll be able to come back and watch one of my students to give a talk about it,” she said.

She said she was particularly thankful for patients willing to endure a major surgery for no medical benefit – only an opportunity to make life better in the future for others who struggle with mobility issues.

The event also included a reception and poster session, where professors and graduate students affiliated with VISE explained a wide range of medical devices being developed.

The university announced in September that the Vanderbilt Initiative in Surgery and Engineering was becoming the Vanderbilt Institute in Surgery and Engineering. This is the group’s fourth annual symposium.

The promotion from a three-year trial program to an established institute is the consequence of a Vanderbilt Reinvestment Award from the University’s $50 million Trans-Institutional Program, which is part of Vanderbilt’s new Academic Strategic Plan.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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