Two College of Medicine Groups Awarded SPARK-VT Grants

August 17, 2016 by Jennifer Nachbur

As the new academic year is set to begin, the innovative work of four University of Vermont research teams - including two groups from the College of Medicine - is moving closer to the marketplace in the wake of a Shark Tank-like competition called SPARK-VT held earlier this summer.

(From left) UVM faculty members Sanchit Maruti, M.D., William Cats-Baril, Ph.D., Isabelle Desjardins, Ph.D., and Robert Althoff, M.D. (Photo: David Seaver)

As the new academic year is set to begin, the innovative work of four University of Vermont research teams - including two groups from the College of Medicine - is moving closer to the marketplace in the wake of a Shark Tank-like competition called SPARK-VT held earlier this summer. Faculty teams had 10 minutes to pitch their innovations and commercialization plans to a panel of experts, then answered rapid fire questions from the panel. Each winning team will receive up to $50,000 in seed funding from the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research.  

Winning projects ranged from a tablet-based tool to screen for suicide risk and a robotic device to improve patient handling, to a micro-propulsion system for satellites and a medical device that simplifies a common orthopedic surgery procedure.

Launched in 2013 by the College of Medicine’s Department of Medicine and expanded to the full university in 2014, SPARK-VT helps bridge the divide between research and the marketplace by bringing promising researchers together with business innovators and biotech leaders.

The goal of SPARK-VT is to address the challenges of translating novel research into products and services that can benefit society. Each year, a panel of 16 leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business, engineering, finance, and legal fields are invited to listen to presentations from UVM’s top researchers. Panel members ask questions, challenge presenters on the details of their plans and offer suggestions.

This year, 14 teams from a variety of UVM colleges submitted proposals. After a selection process, the six teams invited to present included faculty from the College of Medicine, the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, and the Grossman School of Business.  

The panel gathered in Billings Hall on June 17 to hear proposals. Summaries of each of the winning proposals follows.

  • Can a tool accessed via tablet or mobile phone help health professionals screen for suicide risk? Early results for a program developed by a team from the UVM College of Medicine and Grossman School of Business show promise. Called Systematic Expert Risk Assessment for Suicide (SERAS TM), the tool asks patients a series of questions to determine near-term suicide risk, replicating the thinking of an experienced psychiatrist using a novel neural network-based algorithm. With suicide ranking among the top four leading causes of death in individuals between the ages of 10 and 54, the tool stands to help combat a serious public health problem. Team members include Associate Professor of Psychiatry Isabelle Desjardins, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychological Science Robert Althoff, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Sanchit Maruti, M.D., and Associate Professor of Business William Cats‐Baril, Ph.D. They plan to use SPARK-VT funds to establish a scientific advisory board, apply for additional Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding, and conduct several clinical trials in locations outside of Vermont.
  • Orthopedic surgeons are often faced with a complicated, multi-step process when suturing bone to bone or soft tissue to bone. Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation Andrew Kaplan, M.D., and Daniel Pflaster, president of Pflaster Consulting, presented their prototype of a medical device that simplifies this procedure to one step, eliminating potential complications and saving valuable time for the surgical team. With baby boomers remaining active as they age, and a growing trend toward minimally invasive procedures, Kaplan noted that the device stands to tap into a large soft tissue surgery market, up to $5 billion globally. The team plans to use SPARK-VT funding to develop a functional prototype, conduct a usability study, and finalize design and packaging.  
  • Healthcare workers suffer a shockingly high number of back and neck injuries from lifting and moving patients, the direct and indirect costs of which exceed $8 billion a year. Devices like slings, hoists and glide sheets are available to facilitate safe patient handling, but none gets under the patient without caregivers performing some amount of manual lifting and repositioning, often from injury-inviting positions. This project will advance the development a soft robotic device with a creative method of extension that can gently insert needed support elements beneath an at-rest patient. The team will use the SPARK-VT funding to translate a laboratory proof-of-concept to a commercializable prototype, and to develop a formal understanding of the device’s mechanics. The concept, being called SoftSupport, is a collaboration between Dryver Huston, Ph.D., professor of Mechanical Engineering with a joint appointment in Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, and UVM alumnus Stephen Farrington ’87 (B.S. in Civil Engineering), founder of Bethel-based Transcend Engineering.
  • Ongoing advances in micro-scale manufacturing techniques have led to the development of a new generation of miniaturized satellites. Due to the reduction in associated development and launch costs, the small satellite market is rapidly expanding, with an expected annual growth of 23.8 percent between now and 2020. Among the technical challenges remaining for small satellites is the development of miniaturized propulsion systems, which NASA has identified as a key enabling technology for future missions. In this project a liquid chemical micro-propulsion concept for small satellite applications – developed by Darren Hitt, Ph.D., professor of Mechanical Engineering, and UVM alumnus Ryan McDevitt, Ph.D.’14, co-founder and lead R&D engineer for Green Scale Technologies – will be developed into a prototype micropropulsion system. During the course of the award, experimental testing will be used to verify the performance of this prototype and demonstrate the viability of the technology to secure future funding to bring this technology to market.

Based on a program at Stanford University and brought to the College of Medicine by Department of Medicine chair Polly Parsons, M.D., SPARK-VT also includes, in advance of the pitch competition, workshops and guest lectures that address the commercialization process, founding start-ups, business planning and other topics that help faculty move their research into the commercialization pipeline.

Past SPARK-VT awardees have partnered with the UVM Office of Technology Commercialization to found companies and develop partnerships with established biotech firms, as well as successfully apply for a number of competitive grants.

Learn more about SPARK-VT here

(This article was written by staff of the University of Vermont's University Communications office.)

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