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Students join Alumni in Lifesaving Ventures

September 19, 2012

 Nico device


Life-Saving Devices: NICO's BrainPath and Myriad
tumor removal system were breakthrough medical
technology refined with the help of engineers and
student interns at Rose-Hulman Ventures.

 

For an aspiring engineer, there's nothing more valuable than meaningful, real-world experience gained while in college. What could possibly be more meaningful than developing a product that promises to save countless lives?

That's the experience gained by a group of Rose-Hulman student interns at Rose-Hulman Ventures, which serves as an engineering consultant providing invaluable expertise to companies while offering incredible educational opportunities for students. The client in this case was an Indianapolis medical technology firm with long ties to Rose-Hulman Ventures: NICO Corp., whose focus is on advancing new technology for minimally invasive neurosurgery.

NICO's newest product, BrainPath, recently gained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to be marketed in the United States, where more than 230,000 brain tumors are diagnosed each year. The device was taken from prototype to finished product in Rose-Hulman Ventures' labs-the handiwork of a team of students led by Engineering Manager Brian Dougherty, a 1993 electrical engineering alumnus. He calls the technology a "game-changer." That sentiment is echoed by NICO's board chairman, James Baumgardt, a 1970 chemical engineering graduate: "We think we'll revolutionize the way brain surgery is done."

Just as its name suggests, BrainPath is essentially a pathway into the brain, says Joe Mark, NICO's Chief Technology Officer, who worked with Dougherty and his team to polish and commercialize the technology, starting with a rough prototype developed by a neurosurgeon. The pathway allows surgeons to guide other tiny NICO instruments into parts of the brain that otherwise would be inoperable. These instruments safely remove malignancies or collect tissue for testing. Those devices include the NICO Myriad tumor removal system, another technology breakthrough refined with the help of Rose-Hulman students and now used in 21 of U.S. News & World Report's top 40 neurosurgery hospitals.

The new BrainPath technology makes surgery possible, in many cases, where older methods would be too risky. And, its minimally invasive nature has the potential to reduce hospital stays to a day or two following brain surgery.

Why would a company involved in something as complex as brain surgery ask engineering students to help bring its product to market? For one thing, says Baumgardt, these aren't just any students. "These kids are smart," he says. "At Rose-Hulman Ventures we have the capacity to work with some of the brightest young people."

Compared with scientists who may have been focused on a project for an extended period of time, Rose-Hulman students bring a new perspective.

"They have fresh, unbiased ideas," says Mark. "They have no preconceived notion of why something can or cannot work. Thinking you know all the answers can taint how you creatively think."

Baumgardt adds, "Rose-Hulman Ventures serves a real, live company with limited

 Nico Dev Team  
Innovative Team: Rose-Hulman Ventures' Brian Dougherty (left)
and Adam Furore discuss aspects of NICO's new BrainPath device
with company board chairman James Baumgardt, also a
Rose-Hulman alumnus and emeritus trustee.
 

 cash and great potential. It's the ultimate win-win."

The overarching goal of Rose-Hulman Ventures is inspiring today's students through phenomenal educational experiences. Those experiences can be amazing. Adam Furore, a 2012 biomedical engineering alumnus, can hardly believe his good fortune and his contributions to BrainPath's success.

"You're designing a product that is going to change people's lives and save people's lives," points out Furore, who now works in product development for Wolf Technical Services. "How many new graduates can talk about that in a job interview? How many students can say they've changed the world and touched lives before they even turned their tassels?"

It's much more than just a great line on a resume, agrees Dougherty, who spent time in industry before returning to his alma mater. It's an opportunity for students to put into practice those engineering skills learned in the classroom.

"They need a chance to apply their learning in what is sometimes a chaotic environment," Dougherty says. "They need to be in the chaos and mess of the real world to see how things happen."

An important lesson, says Mark, is that success happens through trial and error.

"Are things always right the first time? No. What's important is learning how to fail quickly so you can succeed sooner," he says. Time spent in the real world, as accessed through Rose-Hulman Ventures internships, helps students understand how brainstorming happens.

He adds, "There is no stupid idea, no crazy idea, no dumb idea-just an idea."

Before long, BrainPath will be the tool surgeons across the U.S. use with other high-tech equipment to routinely see and access brain tumors once considered more difficult or impossible cases. It will aid in saving or extending lives and turn complicated brain surgery into a more efficient procedure with better outcomes.

Looking back, Furore says it's gratifying to know that he played a significant role in BrainPath's birthing process.

"For several months that was my baby. That was my project," he says.