Surgeons have the ability to practice and perfect complex heart surgeries without any consequence due to advancements in heart simulators.
One company has been able to contribute to heart simulator technology with a simple question, “Dad, how do you build a heart pump for a pig?”
Alec Grubbs came home from his internship to ask his father, Andy Grubbs, how to engineer an air pump for a heart. Andy, a UNC entrepreneurship professor, venture capitalist and mechanical engineer, became instantly intrigued with his son’s question and decided to go to work with him the next day.
That’s when Andy Grubbs met Richard Feins, a UNC School of Medicine professor of surgery, and offered his mechanical engineering expertise to Feins since thoracic surgeons and biomedical engineers typically aren’t taught how to build air pumps.
Feins had hired Alec Grubbs to help build the lung surgery simulator to help teach surgery residents how to perform a lobectomies — removing one of the lobes of the lung. The goal was to create an air pump to make the heart appear to be beating.
Feins had previously reached out to Dr. Paul Ramphal and Professor Daniel Coore to teach him how to make a heart simulator, after Feins had found their research on creating heart simulators. After Andy met Feins, Ramphal and Coore he became interested in the business aspect of what they had invented. In 2010, Feins, Alec, Dr. Matt Dedmon and Andy collaborated to filed and received two grant patents that UNC owns and KindHeart exclusively licences.
This was the inception of KindHeart, a startup company founded in 2011 by Grubbs and Feins based on the technology they built for a complete cardiac surgery simulation system that makes a pig heart behave the same as a human’s during open-heart surgery.
“So getting the proper components, skills, training in a safe environment where there’s no human life at risk or take life at risk, really puts the students on the right start,” Grubbs said. “But it’s like learning how to play golf from a professional, from day one, you don’t have bad habits to learn.”
The simulators were further developed in 2015 and officially commercialized in 2016. KindHeart’s simulators make surgery predictable, as opposed to cadavers, live animals or humans. The simulators also have the nature of real tissue, movement and bleeding that help doctors have a more immersive experience rather than static or virtual reality simulation.
Surgeons are able to encounter unfavorable conditions in simulated surgery, work on their mistakes and further refine their technique. Doctors can even pause their simulated procedure, allowing them more time to figure out complex situations that can arise during operations.
Feins said that although robotic surgery is different than regular surgery, it still adequately trains students and doctors before surgery.
KindHeart offers a variety of simulators, including thoracic, cardiac, abdominal and customized simulators.
“I really feel that we’re on a mission and people work crazy hours and make amazing donations of time, effort and talent but they don’t get paid a lot of times and it’s because we understand how important this is,” Grubbs said.
KindHeart has multiple goals for the next couple of years, one of them being to expand its simulator training for all types of surgery. The company is also currently focusing on software that would allow surgeons to practice remotely.
Feins said the company had challenges with latency issues with the signal when operating remotely, which is especially a problem with surgery. The latency issues are comparable to when a person is watching television but the sound lags behind the video.
“We are hoping to expand that and that will allow training to be done in many, many settings without people having to travel to centers or take time out of their day,” Feins said.
Another initiative the company is working on is to develop highly sensitized simulators that measure a lot of different functions to be able to better standardize how operations are done, Feins said.
“So there’s a lot of IT that we owned that could significantly change how surgery is done, particularly how robotic surgery is done, going forward and how people are trained to do that,” Feins said.
Grubbs has had over 25 years of experience as a venture capitalist, so fundraising money for KindHeart was a matter of reaching out to former connections that would have a vested interest in advancing medical technology.
The company has raised at least $4 million since its inception in 2014. So far the fundraising has been through angel investors, which has been a new territory for Grubbs.
Most of the company’s customers have been from North Carolina, South Carolina, California or countries such as Korea or Japan.
Grubbs thinks it’s time that skilled venture capitalists could start helping out, to give the company more extended offices, guidance and counsel.
Although the company has customers and revenue, it isn’t profitable quite yet.
It is currently working on gaining additional capital to take advantage of opportunities that revolve primarily around robotic surgery.
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