GRAND RAPIDS — Securing patent protection boosts the chances of a startup company to land the financing needed to commercialize a physical therapy medical device that was developed at Spectrum Health.
The idea originated four years ago with physical therapists at Spectrum Health who wanted a better way to support frail or disabled patients during therapy. The therapists took their concepts to Spectrum Health Innovations LLC, a division of the Grand Rapids health system that vets and works to commercialize clinicians’ ideas that hold promise.
“When we started looking into it we said, ‘Hey, we think there’s something here,’” Spectrum Health Innovations President Brent Mulder said of the SafetySit device. “Through the process of design and innovation and going back and forth, we were able to come up with a pretty clever design.”
On Sept. 3, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent for SafetySit to Spectrum Health Innovations, which three years ago licensed the rights to the design to a startup company formed in 2015 by former Grand Valley State University engineering students who worked on the project in college.
The device enables a patient who’s too weak to safely sit upright on the side of a bed for physical therapy, eliminating the need for extra staff to support them during a session. Spectrum Health Innovations took the idea, validated the concept and market need, then worked on designs with clinicians and GVSU engineering students.
Securing patent protection for the device should help SafetySit LLC’s partners, Mark Harburg and Franz Narowski, a Michigan State University engineering graduate, as they seek to raise seed capital to finalize a design and pursue federal regulatory approval for the device.
“Investors definitely look for that,” said Harburg, who earned his degree in product design and manufacturing engineering from GVSU in 2016.
Harburg and Narowski have developed SafetySit as they work other jobs in the Detroit area.
To date, the company has raised a little more than $30,000, including funding won at a trio of student business competitions around the state, such as $2,500 from the MWest Competition at GVSU in 2015.
SafetySit needs roughly $150,000 in capital to complete the final design, go through the regulatory approval process and move into production, Harburg said. He’s optimistic the young company will secure the investment needed to complete commercialization.
“It’s all a matter of finding the right one that will work well with us,” Harburg said, adding the company also plans to sign up a contract manufacturer to produce the device.
Improving safety, efficiency
The physical therapists who first brought the idea to Spectrum Health Innovations — Don Packard, the health system’s director of rehab, and Matt Epkey — sketched out an initial design, Mulder said. The concept was to provide better support for frail, elderly or disabled patients, as well as alleviate the need to have additional staff in the room during the therapy session.
The therapists were “basically saying, ‘When we transition the patient to the side of the bed and they have their legs hanging over, they are really unstable. We have to bring in a couple people to serve basically as backrests for the patient so they don’t fall over in the bed when we’re trying to get their legs to move or their arms to move,’” Mulder said. “You look at that and you say, ‘Well, there’s potential injury to the patient (and) there’s potential injury to the staff members.’ Plus having a highly skilled clinician serving as a backrest is probably not the best use of resources.”
In its application, Spectrum Health Innovations presented SafetySit to the Patent and Trademark Office as a portable device that in a clinical setting can lead to better efficiency and safety, both for patients and the clinicians who need to support them into the proper position during physical therapy sessions.
Spectrum Health Innovations’ patent application noted that with SafetySit, clinicians “can be more efficient, leading to better care, more patients seen per day and lower payroll costs. In turn, this reduces the cost of the treatment and/or physical therapy for the facility and accordingly, may lower the cost for the patient and the insurance company.”
Filling a need
Harburg first worked on the device as a class project brought to GVSU by Spectrum Health Innovations. After creating a prototype in class, he saw the device’s validity, conducted market research on his own, and decided to pursue commercialization with Narowski.
Harburg took his original prototype to dozens of physical therapists and occupational therapists at nursing homes and hospitals in the Grand Rapids area, including Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, he said. The reactions he got validated the market need.
“Everyone said the same thing: ‘This is awesome. This is amazing. We need this,’” he said.
The partners worked with Spectrum Health and other health systems, including Sparrow Health in Lansing and Beaumont Health in the Detroit area, to get feedback and validation on design iterations.
In initially vetting the idea from the physical therapists, Spectrum Health Innovations found a lot of other seating devices on the market that provide support for weak or frail patients during physical therapy.
The difference between SafetySit and existing products is its portability that allows physical therapists to readily transport the device where it’s needed, whether in a hospital, a nursing home or for in-home care, Mulder said.
“This was something that when we surveyed the landscape, there really wasn’t anything that provided that stable support for the patient, but was also portable for the clinician,” he said. “They have to be able to carry this around. They have to carry it from room to room. They have to carry it from their car to the house.
“We want to see this product on the market. Our clinicians have said, ‘When are we going to get this?’”