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austen bioinnovation institute builds on akron's strengths in research and health care

Dr. Mike Holder, the Vice President of Austen's simulation center.
Dr. Mike Holder, the Vice President of Austen's simulation center. - Photo Submitted
It can be said that the Austen Bioinnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA) runs on belief in the power of collaboration. The institute's original founding was a team effort pulling together the region's medical and technological expertise. The work that goes on behind its walls today relies on cooperation among the various facets of Northeast Ohio's medical community.

Eventually, this partnership will contribute to regional job growth while improving the overall health of area residents. A heady goal, but one that can be reached by teams of smart, driven people working together, its leaders maintain.

Akron's three hospital systems partnered with Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and the University of Akron to form the institute in 2008, receiving support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The partnership is designed as an energetic amalgamation harnessing Akron's high tech research strengths, namely polymer science, musculoskeletal studies, wound healing processes and orthopedics.

All hands on deck

If you want to expand the local economy through medical-related research and education while also working to reduce the burden of disease on the populace, you need a base of operations in which to do it. Austen opened its headquarters at 47 N. Main St. in downtown Akron last spring. The six-story building began life as a train terminal with later iterations as the home base of FirstEnergy Corp. and the Summit County Job and Family Services department.

In June, the institute debuted a 30,000-square-foot simulation center fostering team-based, patient-centered programming. Here, students and medical professionals train together in a space mocked up as an operating room, emergency department, intensive-care unit or obstetrical unit

The mock ER has working equipment and even it's own patients; robotic mannequins that doctors, nurses, EMS technicians and residents "treat" during simulated medical emergency sessions. A session will sometimes begin in Austen's very own ambulance, where an actor playing a car accident victim will be hustled from the vehicle to the staged intensive-care unit. 

Errors are sometimes made during the "hand-off" portion of real emergency situations, so Dr. Mike Holder, the Vice President of Austen's simulation center, makes sure his trainees properly communicate when dropping their pretend patient at the door. That interaction continues on the second floor where the institute's outpatient rooms are located. The rooms are rigged with cameras and microphones allowing Holder and his staff to evaluate a trainee's aptitude and bedside manner.

Students will make mistakes throughout the process, but better during training than when faced with a live, bleeding patient for the first time. "Lack of training leads to human error," says Holder, an attending physician in pediatric emergency medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital. "We're trying to make our people comfortable in what they do."

Along with the simulation center, the facility features a cadaver lab, auditorium and an imitation operating room where most every surgical situation is assessed, including the extremely rare occasion when a patient catches on fire.

"We have a standardized response for every scenario," says Holder.

Testing, testing

Along with serving as a training ground for future medical professionals, the center  is also being marketed to medical devices makers that want to try out new products. TransMotion Medical, a local provider of motorized stretcher chairs, is testing their equipment at the institute for a far more affordable price than the small company would receive at one of the area's major health systems, notes Holder.

Upstairs is a lab for the creation of medical device prototypes, with a particular focus on biomaterial solutions for patients with orthopedic or wound healing problems. It was here that Austen birthed its first spin-out company: Apto Orthopaedics, a medical device firm developing a noninvasive spinal fixation system for children with a curvature of the spine known as scoliosis.

Children with the malady have a metal rod implanted into their spine. Most patients must then undergo additional painful surgeries to lengthen the implant, says company co-founder Stephen Fening, who also serves as Austen's director of orthopaedics devices. The Apto solution uses a rotating magnet that can adjust metal screws within the implant from outside the body, saving young patients much discomfort and the healthcare system a significant amount of money.

"Usually, the implant needs to be adjusted every six months, and each surgery has a high risk of infection," Fening says. "Our device offers a 90 percent cost reduction compared to surgery."

Fening got the idea for the technology from an episode of "This Old House" when the host used a magnet to turn a screw inside a wooden banister. Fening invented the device with Dr. Todd Ritzman, an orthopedic surgeon at Akron Children’s Hospital.

The device will be geared toward children age 9 or younger suffering from early-onset scoliosis. Ritzman is familiar with the agony some children with the condition go through. One young patient he knows had 15 surgeries before the age of 12.

"This is very difficult for the child," says Ritzman. "It's very traumatic for them to repeat this cycle of hospital admissions and recovery."

Apto is currently housed within the institute's Akron headquarters. The new company is a joint venture between Akron Children’s and Austen, which each have an ownership stake. Clinical application of the magnet device is at least a few years away, but Fening feels confident that with a little help, his product will be easing the discomfort of young scoliosis patients some day.

"We would have gone nowhere without this place," he says of the center. Austen "not only offers an outlet for ideas, but gives us the ability to execute that process."

Looking to a bright future

Apto is hopefully just the first of many startups to begin life at the institute, says Thom Olmstead, Austen's director of business development. Among the institute's future plans is an incubator that creates companies adhering to Austen's goals of economic development and job creation.

When it comes to the institute's concentration on biomaterials, wound healing and orthopaedics, "Akron has the resources to support these new companies," says Olmstead.

While there's still work to do, Austen is now recognized around the county now as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation, says Holder.  The institute has 220 invention disclosures and 25 projects ready to move into the prototype phase, and within the next decade aims to spin out 40 to 50 companies that would create nearly 2,400 jobs in Akron.

By training would-be medical professionals in real-life situations rather than through PowerPoint presentations, Austen is developing an educated workforce that will be attractive to companies searching for a dynamic region in which to operate, Holder says. Looking ahead, the center will continue to teach best practices, spin out companies and contribute to the Northeast Ohio job market.

"There's nothing like this in the state," says Holder. "We are a 'think and do' tank."
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