Academy helps innovators advance cardiovascular care

January 4, 2023  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,
Gardner Yost, M.D., M.S., holds a 3-D printed aortic model that is used for testing and measuring the impact of various devices.

Approximately a 5-minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Aikens Innovation Academy (AIA) provides education and mentoring focused on innovation and commercialization concepts, helping innovators turn ideas into marketable products and processes to advance cardiovascular care.
  • Past participants share the value of AIA guidance and tools in helping move innovations forward.
  • AIA is currently enrolling participants for its 2023 course which begins at the end of this month.

The Aikens Innovation Academy (AIA), offered by Fast Forward Medical Innovation (FFMI) in partnership with the Frankel Cardiovascular Center (FCVC), is designed to create, nurture and support a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship through education and mentorship. The focus of the academy is on teaching innovators like Gardner Yost, M.D., M.S., cardiothoracic surgery house officer IV and surgical innovation fellow, how to turn their ideas into marketable products and processes to help advance cardiovascular care.

“I am working on a number of surgical devices, in various stages of development,” said Yost, who participated in the AIA course in 2020 because he had an idea for a medical device but didn’t know how to get started at U-M.

As it turns out, Yost learned much more than how to get started.

“The course forced us to begin by thinking critically about the problem we were working to address, to analyze it from more than just the angle we were used to,” said Yost.

“We started there and branched into numerous facets of innovative device and idea development. Ultimately, we became facile and confident in the problems we were working to address and how to argue for their significance and the importance of our solutions.”

For instance, the academy helped Yost focus on his idea for an improved sternal closure device.

“Typically, after heart surgery, we close the sternum with stainless steel wires,” said Yost. “These wires have a couple of important limitations: they tend to make the bone bleed, and over time they can erode through the sternum or break.

“Our device, called BoneDry, provides a hemostatic closure which prevents bleeding. The device also helps distribute the force of the wires and is resistant to the problem of wire erosion.

“I left the academy with a pitch I was proud of and could sell, as well as the skills to repeat the process for the next project,” said Yost.

Valuable guidance and tools for success

The cornerstone of the AIA program is a 10-week course on innovation and commercialization concepts. The course combines lectures and workshops as well as mentorship from the course instructor, FCVC Innovation team and FFMI.

Now in its fifth year, AIA welcomes FCVC faculty, staff, learners and patients to participate in the program. During the course, among other things, innovators learn to communicate the value of their idea to stakeholders and how to pitch their idea for resources. The course also helps prepare participants to compete in the annual FCVC Innovation Challenge, which takes place each spring.

Yost said the AIA course helped him learn how to pitch a product idea in a concise manner while answering important questions for funders: What problem does this address and how do I know this is a significant problem? What makes a product in this category compelling for a vested buyer? What are the regulatory hurdles? How does the product work?

Crucial connections

Participants whose projects have commercial potential are eligible to apply for early-stage funding and are connected with relevant stakeholders, including departmental and university resources, industry and investors.

After completing the AIA course, Yost went on to participate in the U-M Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, a commercialization program that seeks to accelerate the development of university technologies into new products to improve health care.

Yost’s team, which includes Jonathan Haft, M.D., surgical director for the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit and Adult Heart Transplant Program, and Jeff Plott in Engineering, received funding for the BoneDry innovation through the Coulter Program. Yost said that both AIA and the Coulter Program were extremely helpful in getting the product to where it is now.

“We have developed the BoneDry device to what we believe will be its final design,” he said. “We are currently working to partner with surgical device companies to get it on the market.”

More innovations in the works

BoneDry is not Yost’s only innovation, or his only product idea that benefitted from participation in AIA.

“Other devices I am working on include an improved epicardial pacing wire for use after cardiac surgery, an endovascular device for treatment of aortic dissection, and a laparoscopic specimen retrieval bag which permits removal of large or ungainly specimens though laparoscopic incisions,” said Yost.

Yost went on to compete in – and win – the FCVC Innovation Challenge, which has enabled him to continue development of the epicardial pacing wire with project partner Gorav Ailawadi, M.D., M.B.A., Helen F and Marvin M Kirsh Professor of Cardiac Surgery and chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery.

“The innovation prize is the reason the epicardial pacing wire project is progressing,” said Yost. “We are currently prototyping an exciting new design and expect to be testing it within a month.”

Call for innovators

The Aikens Innovation Academy began with a donation from Ann Aikens and family, whose generosity continues to fund the program. Now entering its fifth year, AIA is enrolling participants for the Winter 2023 course. Offered virtually, the course will run from Tuesday, Jan. 31 through Tuesday, April 18.

Enrollees in the course will leave with enhanced knowledge of innovation and entrepreneurship concepts, in addition to a well-developed pitch for resources. Information about the program, including a link to register, can be found on the FCVC Innovation Program website.

“I would recommend the Aikens program, and indeed have many times,” said Yost. “It is a valuable platform to launch or continue the practice of improving our workplace and improving the care we provide for our patients. Ultimately, I think this is what people are seeking.”

The FCVC Innovation Program is currently offering two additional opportunities for cardiovascular innovators. The 2023 FCVC Innovation Challenge, an annual pitch competition, will accept submissions from now through Feb. 10. The inaugural Innovation Fellowship Program, a one-year program for Ph.D. candidates in the life sciences, is also currently accepting applications.