Man demonstrates SimPull device. Two beds are next to each other, one holds a person pretending to be a patient. The demonstrator is putting straps under the patient. The SimPull device will help move a patient from one bed to another.

Alumnus partners with GVSU to design innovative medical devices

Founder and CEO of The Patient Company launches first product

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An alumnus with experience in business and health care has launched a medical device that keeps the safety of patients and health care workers at the forefront. And from prototype to patent, Grand Valley has an imprint on the device.

In 2016, Andrew Heuerman ’16 was interning at Spectrum Health Innovations (SHI) — a team focused on identifying and solving problems in hospitals — when he was approached by a health care worker who was concerned about the safety of his colleagues. Five team members received back injuries within a short timeframe while attempting to move patients from one flat surface to another.

Moving patients in that manner is known as a lateral transfer. What may seem like a simple process can be difficult and dangerous. Nationally, more than 15,000 injuries to health care workers occur each year from lateral transfers.

Heuerman said the only products that existed to help transfer patients, such as ceiling lifts, were expensive, time-consuming, or only solved half the problem. Health care workers were often forced to physically move patients themselves, which can take more than six people, which Heuerman said can cause injuries.

Heuerman agreed that there must be a better way. And he got to work finding one.

Three men stand with SimPull in a gray room with a blue screen in the background. The tall white device is on wheels and has SIM PULL written on the front in orange and blue lettering.

From left to right are Travis Smith, Andrew Heuerman '16 and Ryan Peters of The Patient Company. (Valerie Hendrickson)

Four students in suits stand with a prototype of SimPull.

From left to right, Taylor Rieckhoff ’19, Dylan DiGiovanni ’18, Daniel Scheske ’18, Michael Matusiak ’18 pose with their first prototype at an EGR 301 class presentation.

Bridging the gap between clinicians and engineers

The world of health care product innovation was a natural fit for Heuerman, although he didn’t always think of it that way.

“I didn’t realize you could make a career of developing innovative medical devices without being an engineer,” he said.

Heuerman arrived at GVSU in 2012 with plans to be a premed student. The son of a dentist and yoga instructor (both were business owners), he had grown up with an interest in health care. During his junior year, a friend encouraged him to explore an entrepreneurship class.

Through one of his entrepreneurship classes, Heuerman was introduced to the SHI team and started collaborating with them on projects. That led to an internship and, after graduating from Grand Valley with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, a full-time position on the SHI team. His education and natural business sense give him the unique ability to straddle the worlds of health care and business.

“My strength is bridging the gap between clinicians and engineers and clinicians and business people,” Heuerman said.

Developing a prototype

In 2016, Heuerman, as a liaison between Spectrum Health Innovations and GVSU, brought the problem to John Farris and Chris Pung, professors of engineering. Their students were tasked with designing a prototype that would make lateral transfers safe, quick and cost-effective.

The first team of engineering students created a sketch of an original concept; students in an advanced product design class developed an innovative way to attach the device to the hospital bed sheet.

The final device, SimPull, uses a metal bar that straps to the bed sheet beneath the patient. A motorized belt gently pulls the bar and sheet, safely sliding the patient from one surface to another. With SimPull, one health care worker can safely transfer a patient in 2 or 3 minutes.

“Working with GVSU students is one of the favorite parts of my job. The freedom of thought and the ability to create something new always surprises me,” Heuerman said.

SHI and GVSU filed a joint patent for SimPull. The four GVSU students who designed the prototypes were named as the inventors on the patent: Dylan DiGiovanni ’18, Michael Matusiak ’18, Taylor Rieckhoff ’19, and Daniel Scheske ’18 (see sidebar). Because of the university’s intellectual property policy, they will receive a share of any proceeds that come to GVSU. Farris said most universities do not have such a policy.

Launching The Patient Company

Two years after beginning the SimPull project, Heuerman decided to leave SHI. He had earned a master’s degree in entrepreneurial transactions from Central Michigan University and wanted to launch his own company to bring SimPull to market.

“Spectrum Health Innovations was my dream job. It was risky to leave and start my own business and it was a very tough decision to make,” he said. “But SimPull was the best idea of thousands brought forward. I was ready to go all in.”

Spectrum believed in Heuerman and his vision. They licensed SimPull to his new startup, The Patient Company, and became its first investor.

Heuerman moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he participated in the Mayo Clinic’s business accelerator program. Mayo Clinic has since joined The Patient Company as one of its largest investors.

SimPull is now in the final stages of testing to secure FDA approval. Heuerman expects that in 2023, it will become available in hospitals nationwide, starting with systems in Michigan.

“While patients are central to everything we do, our north star is providing superior technology to support those who are taking care of patients,” he said. “We know this is a long road and a hard fight. We are committed to doing it the right way, working alongside those who are on a longer road and harder fight every single 10- or 12-hour shift.”

Next up, The Patient Company is preparing to launch its second product: an attachment for SimPull that turns and rotates patients 180 degrees. The device has been patented and should be available by the end of this year. Like SimPull, the product was developed as a collaboration between Heuerman and GVSU engineering students.

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