Oftentimes, clinicians will encounter obstacles or unmet needs in the medical field. Although they may have ideas for possible solutions to these obstacles, it can be challenging for them to take these concepts and turn them into concrete devices.
“No one person has the skillset and expertise to do this independently,” says Carolyn Wilkinson, associate director of the Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory at Penn. “Most people don’t have enough time, knowledge, or resources to move an idea to an actual device or technology. There are hurdles that can seem insurmountable if you’re trying to do it on your own.”
The Penn Health-Tech Center for Health, Devices, and Technology, a project Wilkinson is involved in that launched earlier this year, hopes to unite Penn’s strengths in medicine, engineering, business, and education to connect researchers across disciplines and provide a starting point for them to create technologies that address the world’s urgent health care needs.
“If clinicians have an idea for a device and don’t know where to start, Penn Health-Tech will give them a pathway for development, providing them with a list of all the resources available throughout the University,” Wilkinson says. “The main focus of the Center is trying to connect people from various schools, and unite Penn’s resources and disseminate information across the University.”
The Center launched in May with a symposium that presented speakers and projects that highlighted clinicians and engineers throughout the University who are working in this space. In November, the Center held another symposium, which featured national speakers from industry, regulatory affairs, and venture capital, all resources for device development.
According to Wilkinson, Penn is uniquely positioned to create a hub where researchers and clinicians across schools can connect and work together to develop new technologies.
“It’s a rarity to have all of these schools within a very close proximity,” she says. “Penn and CHOP are both premier research institutions, and between Engineering, Medicine, Vet, Dental, and Wharton, there’s a tremendous amount of research coming out of Penn. It’s such a great combination, and moving this technology forward is going to take resources and expertise from all these areas. What we have internally is just a wealth of opportunity to utilize that expertise.”
In addition to building a website where clinicians and engineers can find resources and information to help them get started on a project, the Center also holds monthly meet-ups where clinicians can present their unmet needs to engineers and give them a chance to brainstorm, coming up with ideas and solutions.
The Center is also sponsoring an engineering student device club that meets weekly to support students. The goal, Wilkinson says, is to create a Penn Health-Tech fellowship program where fellows would learn the process of starting with a project drawn on a napkin and moving through the steps of prototyping preclinical trials, conducting clinical trials, and getting regulatory approval along the way.
“Our value is helping people navigate device development at every stage, making it accessible and utilizing what’s already here at Penn,” Wilkinson says. “The goal is to build this community within Penn, continue to reach out to the greater Philadelphia area, and then hopefully make the region a real hub in this area. Once we get up and running strongly in the university setting, we hope to expand pretty quickly into the greater community.”