HOLLAND — Jim TenBrink believes he has the invention that’s going to revolutionize the way surgeons are trained in spinal procedures and how medical device companies research and test innovations.
For generations, the traditional surgical training methods have involved cadavers, a practice that comes with logistical challenges and a mountain of regulatory paperwork — not to mention the high cost of having everyone travel to a single training location.
Through the new surgical training model developed by Holland-based Encoris Group Corp., surgeons, academics and researchers could get hands-on training without having to leave their offices or labs.
The S2T Surgical Smart Trainer that Encoris plans to bring to market early next year is a lifelike torso that TenBrink believes will replace the use of cadavers in training for minimally invasive spinal procedures — and rid users of all of the accompanying issues.
“Nothing like this exists in the world today,” said TenBrink, co-founder and vice president for creative solutions at Encoris.
The company received a U.S. patent for the S2T Surgical Smart Trainer in late summer, and a final design for the product is nearly complete.
A nine-year-old company that produces medical models and products for surgical training, Encoris expects to begin selling the model in the second quarter of 2018. Encoris will enclose the final version of the surgical trainer with soft tissue that replicates muscle and skin.
The company plans to produce the surgical trainer in Holland, TenBrink said.
Among the prospective clients that Encoris plans to target are medical device companies, teaching hospitals, medical schools and researchers.
Users of the model will have the ability to conduct training or do research without the use of cadavers. That cuts the associated logistics and costs of arranging travel, lodging and booking time in a cadaver lab.
TenBrink cites as an example a medical device company that wants to demonstrate a new orthopedic implant to a surgical group. Rather than have representatives and surgeons from client prospects travel to a cadaver lab for a demonstration, the company can take the surgical trainer on the road for an office presentation.
“You can throw a model on the surgeon’s desk and give them an idea of how the surgical implant works,” TenBrink said following a recent demonstration of the surgical trainer. “This is going to open the world to medical device companies. They’ll now have a realistic model to prove out their implant technology.”
The trainer also eliminates the radiation exposure to surgeons and researchers from the X-rays needed on cadavers during the procedures. The model also can be changed for the spinal pathology or condition for which surgeons need training, TenBrink said.
The S2T Surgical Smart Trainer uses high-definition cameras, LEDs and a software package that creates intricate, X-ray-like images displayed on a tablet or computer screen. Real-time imaging and web connectivity will allow users to conduct training sessions through webinars.
LEVERAGING LOCAL CONNECTIONS
TenBrink first envisioned the model while attending an industry trade show three years ago. He saw sales reps from a company demonstrating their product on an iPad and began wondering whether he could create a model for spinal surgical training using iPad technology.
Working with local design and engineering, he developed a prototype for the S2T Surgical Smart Trainer. Early on, Encoris received a grant from Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development group for the Holland-Zeeland area, to support product development.
Early prototypes were reviewed by dozens of surgeons, radiologists and medical device makers. Among them was Eric Major, the president and CEO of K2M Group Holdings, a Virginia technology company for minimally invasive spine procedures.
In a recent announcement of the patent awarded to Encoris, Major said the S2T Surgical Smart Trainer can reduce training costs and expedite product development.
Seeing a working prototype from Encoris “was certainly exciting,” Major said.
TenBrink then approached Grand Valley State University’s Applied Medical Device Institute in Grand Rapids.
At AMDI, which is housed downtown in GVSU’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, TenBrink got assistance on enhancing the initial design, including developing the internal electrical and mechanical systems and software for the surgical trainer.
Executive Director Brent Nowak liked what he saw when TenBrink came to the AMDI.
“He’s taking their core competency (of Encoris) in a new direction that’s really going to transform spine surgery training in the future. It’s quite a novel idea,” Nowak said. “Jim’s really on to something there.
“To me, it seems very obvious that this could be a big win for them. We’ll see what the market says.”
AMDI also helped TenBrink transform color images to look like X-ray images and show them on a tablet, a task “which was not a trivial matter,” Nowak said.
Working with GVSU faculty and graduate students, the AMDI also designed, analyzed and developed a test for a complex system in the surgical trainer that mimics the motion of the spine.
“It’s one of those things where the user will never realize how complex it is and some of the challenges that we were able to overcome,” Nowak said of the S2T.
Future versions of the surgical trainer will include feedback sensors embedded in the model, live data collection, downloadable software upgrades and the ability to connect to training centers.
Encoris also plans to move beyond the spine and orthopedics market to develop surgical trainers for other areas of the body and procedures. Among them are cardiac surgery, general surgery and interventional radiology.
“We started off with what we know best,” TenBrink said. “The potential for this is going to be incredible.”