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SLU Medical Students Form Incubator to Foster Biomedical Innovation

A journey that began in March 2015 came full circle in April when the student teams that made up the inaugural MEDLaunch class presented their projects in front of a crowd at Saint Louis University School of Law.


Members of the MEDLaunch executive board pose with others at the MEDLaunch Demo Day in April. Photo by Re-I Chin

A journey that began in March 2015 came full circle in April when the student teams that made up the inaugural MEDLaunch class presented their projects in front of a crowd at Saint Louis University School of Law.

Founded by SLU School of Medicine students, MEDLaunch is a non-profit, biomedical and entrepreneurship incubator partnering with Saint Louis University and other organizations in the area.

The program is the product of collaborative efforts between SLU School of Medicine, Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology, and SLU School of Law.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

As a part of MEDLaunch, participants work in multidisciplinary teams under the guidance of clinical and industry mentors to improve the standard of health care in areas including surgical devices, health information technology and medical diagnostics.

Physicians share ideas for improving daily clinical practice, and teams of students tackle those ideas with an aim for creating a practical solution which will improve the practice of medicine.

"We went to doctors and asked what should we fix — what they would work on if they had the time," said founder Andy Hayden, who recently completed his second year as a medical student at Saint Louis University.

"Medicine is ripe for innovation," said Richard Bucholz, M.D., professor of neurosurgery at SLU and a member of MEDLaunch's Board of Directors. "These teams can get to the heart of the matter by coming up with solutions and creating a sustainable business model in the process."

Hayden said he felt Saint Louis University was eager to jump further into the booming local start-up market. "We had all the pieces in place here at SLU and in the city," he said.

This is guaranteeing experience out of a classroom in medical technology where you get the chance to work with people from across the university."

Mia Harton

Hayden and friends Anthony Grzeda and Rusdeep Mundae, also coming off their second year as SLU medical students, went to Joel Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and associate dean for research, on March 15 of their first year at SLU. Eissenberg put the group in touch with Graeme Thomas and Stephanie Kimzey in the University's Office of Technology Management.

"We were given support from the beginning," Mundae said. "Dr. Eissenberg and Dr. Smith (Gregory Smith, Ph.D., assistant dean of the medical school) could see the big picture with us."

By early May, the MEDLaunch team was pitching to department chairs and doctors at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. The physicians offered the first round of problems to be solved.

2015-2016 Projects

Skydration Systems, comprised of students at Saint Louis University High School, also participated in the competition. 

"We are excited by the trial run with the SLUH high kids," Grzeda said. "A faculty member has a son there and he agreed to act as mentor for them. We've already spoken with the Affton School District and we think there could be room for more."

How It Works

The teams formed in the fall after the MEDLaunch executive team set up tables at the School of Medicine and Chaifetz School of Business to recruit students. From the more than 180 interested students, the executive team culled through resumes and held interviews to find their team leaders for each project. The leaders then picked their team.

The arc of a MEDLaunch project follows the school calendar. Teams formed at the beginning of the school year and presented their projects in late spring.

Each team brings together students from unique academic backgrounds, with at least one medical student, one engineering student and one business student on each team.

Once formed, the teams sought to create a new solution to their problem that could be marketed and produced for everyday use. SLU faculty and members of local industries acted as advisers for the teams.

The entire MEDLaunch group met monthly for design reviews with mentors and board members.

"We had people from BioGenerator and Arch Grants that came in to talk to the teams and review their work," Hayden said. "The idea was that any of these projects could be spun off into a business, and it was impressive to see the teams stay connected and seek out the advice of the business leaders."

The program ended with a Demo Day presentation to local investors and angel networks, with the goal of obtaining seed funding to progress to advanced prototyping, clinical trials and manufacturing.

A Team Effort

MEDLaunch worked with SLU's Office of Technology Management to devise a plan for any potential start-ups.

"Tech Management helped us clarify the patent process for those that might need it," Hayden said. "The students on the teams own their intellectual property. If their device is workable, they can patent it and form their own LLC."

Teams that choose not to form a business still gain valuable experience as part of MEDLaunch.

"Medical start-ups are hard — a lot of them don't work out," said Mia Harton, MEDLaunch's clinical outreach director and a SLU medical student. "This is guaranteeing experience out of a classroom in medical technology where you get the chance to work with people from across the university. Even if you fail, you are making connections and getting in the mindset of solving problems in medicine."

Mundae agrees. "So many people in pre-med or medical school develop tunnel vision — we are only focused on our end goal," he said. "To get to develop this extra skill set while we are still learning about medicine is just such a great learning experience."

MEDLaunch is a part of the Cortex Innovation Community as an "innovation center." Cortex's innovation centers are home-based within the district and work to support start-ups and emerging ventures.

The MEDLaunch executive board includes Hayden, president; Grzeda, vice president; Mundae, vice president of administration; Harton, clinical outreach director; Daniel Pike, vice president of internal affairs; and Michael Beckman, vice president of finance.

The Board of Directors includes Richard Bucholz, M.D., Gregory Smith, Ph.D.; Mark Higgins, Ph.D., dean of the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business; Stephen Buckner, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and interim dean of Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology; and Jerome Katz, Ph.D., director of the Billiken Angel Network.