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Student-designed neurosurgery device wins top prize at Bench to Bedside Competition

The team is taking advantage of the momentum from their win, along with the $20,000 in prize money.

Early this spring, a team of medical students from the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah took home the top prize at the 2023 Bench to Bedside (B2B) competition.

Hosted by the U’s Center for Medical Innovation (CMI), B2B is Utah’s premier health care innovation competition. Now in its thirteenth year, B2B offers students from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn from health care professionals about the problems facing day-to-day patient care, and develop tangible, innovative solutions.

“The competition continues to grow every year, expanding far beyond the University of Utah and the State of Utah,” said Justin Brunson, associate director at CMI. “It’s helping create an amazing entrepreneurial group of students who are passionate about health care innovation.”

This year’s winning project, SoundPass, is a device designed to improve the accuracy of placing a catheter into the lateral ventricle of the brain, a procedure done in patients with hydrocephalus or those requiring pressure monitoring after suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI). SoundPass displays real-time ultrasound imaging to guide neurosurgeons during the procedure to improve accuracy and thereby improve the safety profile of the procedure.

The SoundPass project team consists of third-year medical students Jordan Johnson, Travis Hotchkiss, Matt Findlay, and fourth-year medical student Kyril Cole. The team came together with a common goal: to improve patient care through health care innovation.

Meaningful innovation

To ensure that their project would be meaningful, team members interviewed several neurosurgeons to identify common problems in neurosurgery.

Shervin Rahimpour, MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of Utah Health, had an idea for the team. He had identified a common, unmet need in TBI patients.

Swelling in the brain after a traumatic skull impact causes pressure within the brain that can lead to long-term, sometimes irreparable damage. To quickly relieve the pressure, a surgeon places a catheter in the lateral ventricle to monitor the pressure in the brain and drain off cerebral spinal fluid. The procedure is commonly done using external landmarks of the skull to determine a starting point and trajectory.

Because image-guidance systems require bulky and often unavailable equipment, the procedure is commonly performed at the bedside without these advanced tools to optimize speed. However, induvial patient anatomy can vary, making it difficult to successfully access the ventricle without visualization of the target. This can lead to multiple attempts, delaying treatment and worsening patient outcomes.

With Rahimpour’s help, the team identified a solution to the problem: a real-time imaging device that improves targeting and catheter placement. SoundPass was born.

“Once we started working on SoundPass, we realized we had something pretty special and that there was an actual clinical need we might be able to solve,” said Findlay. “Not only could we gain more medical knowledge and expertise, we could help improve patient outcomes.”

Encouraging collaboration across disciplines

Even though the entire SoundPass team are medical students, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. These differences helped make the magic happen.

“We are really fortunate to have a team with such different skillsets, interests, and perspectives,” said Findlay. “Kyril and I both aspire to be neurosurgeons, so becoming familiar with neurosurgery-related clinical problems was a main focus for the project. Travis and Jordan have specialty interests outside of neurosurgery, but they both have extensive backgrounds in product development, mechanical and biomechanical engineering. Our team’s unique dynamic helped us succeed.”

A strong mentor is another secret to the team’s success.

“After our initial conversations with Dr. Rahimpour, we knew we wanted him as our mentor. We met with him once every two or three weeks,” said Findlay. “There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of face time, which was really helpful.”

Rahimpour not only helped the students identify the problem, but he also helped set parameters for possible solutions to get the team moving in the right direction.

“Students approach problems in health care with an enthusiasm and perspective that’s unique to somebody being exposed to a topic for the first time,” said Rahimpour. “My role as a mentor is to help guide that enthusiasm with practical concerns to form tangible solutions.”

The future of SoundPass

The team hopes to have SoundPass ready to go to market in the next three years.

“There are a lot of good innovations that aren’t seen through, but we gained a lot of momentum when we won the B2B competition,” said Hotchkiss. “Our number one priority is to see this through to the finish line.”

The team is taking advantage of the momentum from their win, along with the $20,000 in prize money. They have partnered with an ultrasound technology firm to iterate their prototype. They are also refining and streamlining their technology for future testing.

“We want to help save patients’ lives and contribute to advancements in neurosurgery,” said Findlay.

Learn more about the Center for Medical Innovation and the Bench to Bedside competition.