During finals week last term, countless students at Drexel University presented final projects and papers, likely in front of instructors and their Dragon classmates.
But when students from MedTech Innovation I met the morning of Dec. 9 for their final orals, they were joined by classmates and mentors from continents away, as well as cutting-edge innovators, entrepreneurs and investors in the medical device business. And the MedTech students were not really presenting as students at all. Throughout the quarter, they had embedded themselves with a company, learned everything they could about a burgeoning new biomedical device being prepared to go to market, and were instead presenting almost as if they were members of the company themselves, attempting to win the praises of the investors in attendance.
These final orals were a culmination for the students of a full term of functioning within a medical technology “ecosystem” comprised of their peers, but modeled after those their instructors found while working in industry.
“[These ecosystems are] a community of people from all walks of life and domain experts that enable and help someone to bring medical innovation into the market,” explained Jamie Mak, managing director of global innovation partnerships in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and an instructor for the course. “These can be lawyers, these can be accountants, these can be regulatory experts. This could be a number of people. That's the ecosystem we're talking about.”
In addition to this MedTech Innovation class series being open to students from different academic backgrounds at Drexel, it also pulls in students, mentors and entrepreneurs from other parts of the world — mainly Turkey and China, where H. H. Sun Professor of Biomedical and Electrical Engineering Banu Onaral, PhD, has her deepest global ties. Ironically, it was the halt to in-person global engagement from the pandemic that tied Onaral down long enough to begin offering this engaging global classroom experience.
“This is not your typical course, but we are not in typical times anymore,” Onaral said. “There is a philosophy behind the fact that this is Global Innovation Partnership curriculum … It's a living experiment. It's an evolutionary kind of a curriculum.”
“This is all about bringing the real world to our students,” added Mak.
The hands-on learning and atypical nature of MedTech Innovation I is something that Serdar Kiykioglu, an expert with 35 years in the biomedical field, including 12 in medical device development, said was off-putting to some students whom he helped mentor through the class. But once they got settled and gelled with their peers from different countries and academic backgrounds, they realized the value proposition.
“They expect the class to be one of those traditional classes in which somebody’s going to come and lecture and they will learn from it. But this is very different in the sense that they actually do the work and they learn on the ‘job,’” he said. “In time, they learn, and I try to guide them by asking the right questions rather than teaching them how to do it.”
The due diligence practices students help the device companies exercise similarly cannot be learned from a book, Kiykioglu said. That’s why the students go through the actual motions, like they would in industry, in a team that can offer diverse perspectives.
“One student may look at things from a technology perspective, another from a medical perspective, another from a mechanical perspective,” he said. “But soon enough, they realize that they are all contributing to the same goal of trying to assess whether a company is investable or not. So they realize the importance of these different viewpoints, different aspects of the entire overall process, and learn how to combine their skills in a holistic way so that the end result is something that they all agree upon.”
This is something that Drexel students Evan Charlesworth, Zachary Goldblum and Sakyra Hayes found to be true working alongside both Turkish and Chinese students with the Turkish company Vagustim. Vagustim is a bioelectronic medicine health technology company bringing to market its wearable med-tech device that focuses on non-invasive bilateral auricular vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) in order to treat digestive diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease.
Charlesworth, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student, and Goldblum, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student, said they each learned a lot about looking at the medtech innovation landscape from outside of the traditional engineering perspective.
“You get very caught up in the actual engineering side of it, and sometimes forget that you're ultimately engineering this device for a human and that you're ultimately trying to help someone and improve their lives,” Goldblum said. “That diversity of majors and perspectives [in the class were] almost a reminder that the focus is for the person that you're designing the device for. It isn't the device itself — it’s bringing that human side into the engineering side as well.”
For Hayes, a fifth-year global studies major, in addition to learning a lot about biomedicine and social entrepreneurship, she also learned a lot about professionalism and cross-cultural engagement due to the fact that this was a global classroom.
“I've never really had a course that was as hands-on and collaborative before, so I really enjoyed that,” she said. “I think, being a global studies major, this definitely actually opened up a lot of my interest to maybe exploring this sector a little bit later on.”
Hayes isn’t the only student for whom taking the MedTech sequence may have an effect on their future career. Roze Alzabey McDevitt (BS/MS biomedical engineering ’21), who took the MedTech Innovation sequence last school year before her graduation, went on to land a job as a venture capital analyst for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which is one of the investment companies that engages with the class. McDevitt said that not only did the class teach her about the importance of these medtech innovation ecosystems, but it also provided her with an ecosystem of her own with a plethora of experts, speakers, and peers to help build her professional network.
“It really takes a village to take a product from being an idea to the market and you learn that in that class,” she said. “We have this great mentorship of them, the teachers of the class, really coming back to us and saying, ‘I want you to think critically about this. Yes, this is a technology that might help save lives, and this is what the founders are saying. But I want you to think of other aspects? What does the market look like? Why this technology? Why not another technology?’ And so having this critical mindset, in addition to just performing an assignment or writing a report, I think was really profound and also developing or starting to develop that skill.”
McDevitt went on this year to represent Ben Franklin Technology Partners during the Dec. 9 oral presentations. She sung the praises of the Vagustim group, saying they made a great presentation, and there were a lot of aspects of the company’s technological offerings that she wanted to learn more about. Ali Can Erk, co-founder of Vagustim, also said that the student team contributed a lot to his company, and that they updated their own pitch presentation based on the student feedback.
“I’m very happy with the way the team gelled so quickly,” added Kiykioglu of the students. “… The team worked very nicely together and found a few vital gaps, and came up with solutions for those gaps.”
Goldblum said the opportunities provided by MedTech Innovation I exceed what he expected to be able to do as an undergraduate student.
“It's been very rewarding and very educational going through this process,” he said. “From taking this class and some other business and entrepreneurship type classes, I think I realized that I really enjoyed the more business-focused side of engineering just as much as I enjoy actually developing a medical device. So, I feel like this gives me a lot of useful tools for my own career, should I want create a startup myself or work in the startup field.”
Onaral said though all student can apply to take MedTech Innovation I, the class does tend to draw those with a certain attribute.
“They have the fire,” she said. “They have the medical innovation fire. They want to make a difference. They want to do something, and they may come from business, they may come from design, wherever they come from, they want to make a difference.”
For more information about MedTech Innovation I and II along with contact information for the instructors, click here.