GVSU group helps develop device that improves spine surgery training

A group photo of the Encoris-aMDI team.
From left, Noah Keefer, Maruf Hossain, Jim TenBrink, Brent Nowak, Jon Vinkso and John Doneth.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
A photo of the device.
Thoracic to lumbar spine model with the C-arm mimic on a sliding rail with high-definition cameras.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
A photo of the device.
C-arm mimic camera system on a sliding rail.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
A photo of the device.
FlexBone lumbar spine with pedicle screws deployed.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

A Grand Valley State University group worked with a local inventor and alumnus to help develop a first-of-its-kind device that can improve the way surgeons are trained for spinal procedures.

The applied Medical Device Institute at Grand Valley (aMDI) worked with Encoris to develop the S2T Surgical Smart Trainer and ready it for manufacturing and sales. Encoris, located in Holland, designs and manufactures medical models and surgical trainers for medical device companies around the world. 

Jim TenBrink, co-founder and vice president of Encoris, graduated from Grand Valley in 1997 with a degree in marketing. He said the surgical training device has the potential to solve many issues, such as high exposure to radiation, and logistical and costly challenges of using cadavers. 

"The use of cadavers for surgical training is a method that has been around forever — it's 19-century technology," TenBrink said. "We want to take surgical training to the 21st century. Not only will this device help medical device companies expedite sales and surgeon education, but it will also help expand their launch of medical devices. It will provide safer and more cost-effective training for students at teaching hospitals and medical schools."

The first device to launch is designed to replace the use of cadavers in training for minimally invasive procedures. It focuses on the posterior aspect of the spine and is shaped like a torso. Inside the torso shell is a sliding C-arm rail system with mounted cameras that mimic X-ray. TenBrink said a second version created for lateral spine surgery will follow shortly. 

Brent Nowak, executive director of aMDI, connected with TenBrink through the University of Michigan's Small Company Innovation Program, Technology and Commercialization Assistance program, which helps small businesses access resources at Michigan's public universities. 

Nowak involved several Grand Valley faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students to develop the device's camera system — a challenging feat. 

"The team had to create a three-dimensional model of the spine, which included electrical and mechanical engineering expertise," Nowak explained. "Then they built a prototype and conducted testing. It was great to have bright, energetic minds on this because they came up with creative ideas to solve a very complex problem." 

TenBrink said the prototype he presented to aMDI was lacking the X-ray visuals that surgeons need in order to train outside cadaver labs. The aMDI team converted four cameras into lifelike X-ray visuals, visible in real time.

"There's not a trainer in the world that can do that," TenBrink said. "It's a game-changer, a time- and money-saver, and it's saving people's lives because they're not being subjected to radiation. I couldn't be more thrilled with the level of knowledge and expertise the students and faculty provided." 

Maruf Hossain, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Dhaka, Bangladesh, led the development of the 3-D prototype and its mechanical features. He said the most challenging part of the project was designing such a precise camera system that would align with the function of X-ray machines. 

"I like challenges and this project initially presented a unique set of problems to be solved," said Hossain. "My favorite part of the project was the moment when our concept was well-accepted by Encoris after testing the prototype for proper functioning." 

TenBrink plans to bring the device to market this year. The final version of the trainer will include soft tissue that replicates muscle and skin.

TenBrink is the Encoris' creative visionary along with Harley Domasik, the company's lead model maker. For more information about Encoris, visit www.encoris.com

About aMDI

The applied Medical Device Institute (aMDI), a first of its kind in West Michigan, is located in Grand Valley's Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences on the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids. The institute provides access to researchers, engineers, medical professionals, and business and entrepreneurial professionals. It uses an integrated approach that includes intellectual property, business review and mentoring. It was established in 2016. Learn more at www.gvsu.edu/amdi.