VCU da Vinci Center leader discusses COVID-19 health care innovations
As part of its ongoing series of virtual conversations about business-related impacts of COVID-19, the VCU School of Business on April 21, welcomed Garret Westlake for a 45-minute dialogue to address the topic of “COVID-19 Health Care Innovations.”
Westlake is executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of Business and the Arts, and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances student innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.
For this dialogue, Grier and Westlake were joined by VCU donors, c-suite executives, business leaders and VCU alumni.
VCU Health Innovation Consortium
Just over a year ago, well before COVID-19, VCU launched its Health Innovation Consortium, a three-year, $7 million initiative to support the development of new innovations in health care. Consortium members include:
- the da Vinci Center
- VCU Ventures, an office that supports faculty and staff startup companies
- VCU Health
- Activation Capital
Few institutions are able to do cross disciplinary education the way VCU does and even fewer still have the ability to collaborate with the health sciences as well as a university medical center. As we are learning today – during the COVID-19 pandemic – engineering, design, business and supply chain are all critical aspects our of health care system.
How the da Vinci Center previously supported VCU Health System
Prior to the pandemic, the da Vinci Center was already collaborating with the VCU Health System and had achieved incredible outcomes in developing new techniques to improve narcotic waste management and designing new medical devices.
Last fall, master’s students in the product innovation program conducted a two-week sprint to develop new products to protect fragile neonatal patients who arrive at the VCU Medical Center via helicopter. These products can help ensure a safe and efficient process and transition from helicopter to VCU’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Why innovation is more challenging in the health care industry
If innovation isn’t what you do all day, it’s helpful to understand that it’s essentially a three-step process:
- Creativity: it starts with creativity. But having new ideas and finding better ways of doing things is the easy part.
- Innovation: The next stage is innovation or the implementation of new ideas. Implementing new ideas in health care is really challenging because it involves a lot of procedures, standards and time-consuming safety tests. This can inhibit innovation.
- Entrepreneurship: The final stage is entrepreneurship, essentially having the business sense to sustain those new ideas and make sure they persist into the future.
It’s a constant fight to keep new innovative ideas alive and going forward. Case in point? The failure of a 2007 effort in the U.S. to address the nation’s anticipated shortage of ventilators.
VCU team designs DIY 3D printable ventilator in 3-4 weeks
In contrast to that 13-year effort and to address supply shortages resulting from COVID-19, an interdisciplinary team at VCU recently succeeded in designing a ventilator that hospitals, health systems or makerspaces can produce using a few tools and a 3D printer.
Over a period of just three to four weeks, the team, which included students, created a kit for a ventilator that non-engineers can easily fabricate. It comprises readily available, off-the-shelf parts and components that can be 3D-printed in a university or makerspace setting using open-source programs and plans. The VCU ventilator currently is under FDA review where it is being fast tracked for approved medical use.
If needed, VCU could build tens of ventilators a day using these new designs and specifications. The da Vinci Center partners at VCU Health are currently running simulations and safety tests on the new device. The VCU ventilator is not meant to replace current commercial-grade devices, but in the event of an emergency, it could truly save lives.
Creative approaches to PPE shortages
It’s abundantly clear in pandemic news coverage that there is a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment. While an old economy model might focus on building more, da Vinci students have also been trained to ask the question, “What is the problem?”
In fact, the problem is that our nation’s health care system doesn’t have enough equipment. Therefore, making more PPE is just one possible solution. The shortage of PPE is one of the tracks in the da Vinci Center’s “healthcare sprint” where 38 students from different disciplines are focusing on COVID-19 challenges. One team is focused on manufacturing new, more easily produced PPE that can immediately be put to use by health systems and organizations. Another student team is experimenting with ways to sterilize and reuse PPE. The winners of the healthcare sprint will be announced on April 29th in a live online Demo Day. (RSVP here.)
da Vinci project team pivots to address COVID-19 testing
Last fall, the da Vinci Center was approached through the Health Innovation Consortium to examine how they might improve testing pediatric patients using technology that had never been used before. For example, the “Nose Knows” team had been examining use of a “smart tissue” that uses the mucus in a patient’s nose to conduct at-home testing.
Immediately after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, da Vinci students asked faculty for permission to pivot their capstone project to address the need for rapid COVID-19 testing. The work they are doing could help inform COVID-19 testing in the future. Increasing access to testing, particularly at home, will remain a key part of our global response to the pandemic.
New healthcare innovation certificate first of its kind
While the da Vinci Center has worked on innovations to improve health care for some time now, last week, the Center announced its intent to offer a graduate certificate in health care innovation and is currently accepting applications for the fall 2020 semester. This certificate, the first of its kind in the country, is made possible by a unique partnership between the da Vinci Center and the School of Nursing. In this program, students will get an opportunity to explore healthcare leadership as well as the “ins and outs” of what it takes to do innovation in the healthcare setting. The certificate was in the works long before the current pandemic but now it could not be more relevant.
We are looking at the health system to identify pain points today and in the future so that we can find solutions. We want our students to be on the front lines of understanding future challenges, so they can be active participants in solving them.
Global experiences create global problem solvers
COVID-19 reminds us that we operate in a global space. The da Vinci Center, as well as Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley were among the inaugural partners invited to participate in European Innovation Academy Italy and Portugal. The Academy works with select schools from all over the world to put students through a technology boot camp to launch new tech companies.
Academy students come from various cultural backgrounds and the impact different cultures have on product innovation has been valuable for da Vinci students to witness. These students are also forming meaningful global friendships and networks.
During the recent healthcare sprint, one graduate student who had attended the Academy asked, “How can we think beyond the U.S.? How can we help countries that don’t have the same infrastructure as we do?” As a result of this program, he has additional lenses and perspectives. He wants to be a global problem solver.
Partnering with regional businesses and nonprofits
Industry and organization partnerships are at the heart of the da Vinci Center’s Product Innovation programs. Our partners – individuals, small organization and large corporations – benefit by engaging with our talented cross-disciplinary student teams who deliver unique solution product solutions and our students benefit by engaging with real world development challenges.
One such example is our partnership with Hourigan Construction on the first-of-its-kind student storefront, a brick-and-mortar storefront, scheduled to open this fall on Broad Street, where students across the university can sell their own inventions and products directly to the public. Meanwhile, as a result of that partnership, we also are exploring new, sustainable construction technologies.
How might you partner with the da Vinci Center?