Product development

Product development

Testing on the frontline: a Dutch university shows how collaboration speeds up medtech innovation



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Earlier this year, the University of Twente (UT) officially launched its TechMed proeftuin programme – a trial centre offering medtech startups the opportunity to use the University’s simulated hospital environment and state-of-the-art medical equipment and knowledge to assist with NPD. Doris Retfalvi finds out what’s going on

University of Twente

‘Techmed proeftuin’ literally translates as ‘an experimental garden’ or, in a more contextual sense, ‘a trial centre for medtech’. It’s a term created by the Dutch government for a subsidised programme allowing the experimental development of new ideas, products or services in a realistic environment. Supported by the European Regional Development Fund, the Enschede-based trial centre will focus primarily on developments in medical imaging and sensing, in collaboration with regional hospitals, academic centres and R&D specialists.

Real-life medical simulation has been a significant part of the University’s educational programme for over a decade, via the Experimental Centre for Technical Medicine (ECTM). This facility, currently serving as the physical location for the TechMed trial centre, originated as a training site for Technical Medicine and Biomedical Engineering students, offering them the chance to work with high-end equipment from diagnostics and medical imaging systems, through to virtual reality and human patient simulators, just as they would in a real medical environment.

The centre has since expanded to serve biomedical or clinically oriented research groups within the University. It helps those in need of resources and expertise to conduct clinical trials on human subjects, explains Remke Burie, former head of the ECTM and now operations director of the European Technological Medical Centre – a UT department aimed at international cooperation.

A factory of startups

The university has seen a number of spinoff companies emerge as a result of its strong focus on valorisation and entrepreneurship, and its continuous investment to upgrade the ECTM’s facilities to serve university-affiliated research institutes like the MIRA biomedical research institute and the MESA nanotechnology institute. ‘There are around 30 to 40 spinoffs currently active in the medtech field, and we have seen a need to speed up developments and bring them to the market,’ explains Burie.

‘That’s the gap we’re trying to fill now,’ he adds, ‘as we have a broad knowledge of the whole area of expertise both from partnerships with companies and from university research groups familiar with current demands in the healthcare market.’

Growing demand

University of Twente

Techmed proeftuin

In the past two years word of the ECTM’s potential has spread – through former students getting involved in similar programmes throughout the country and the growth of the University’s network of successful spinoffs. This has attracted a number of requests from external companies who want to use the ECTM’s facilities and work with UT students and researchers on developing new medical devices, explains Burie.

‘This made us decide to build a more structured approach to meet the requirements of startups or more established companies here in the region,’ he explains. However, in order to meet the increasingly high demand of new applicants and accelerate the steps towards the end product, the UT staff decided to launch TechMed proeftuin as a joint initiative with three partner companies experienced in product development and prototyping –­­­ Holland Innovative, the Koningh Medical Systems and Panton.

A multidisciplinary partnership

This joint venture works in favour of everyone. The trial centre benefits from added R&D expertise, while enabling partner companies to provide their clients with the facilities necessary to test their products in a hospital-like environment.

‘Many innovators have promising ideas,’ says Lisette van Steinvoren, project manager for Holland Innovative. ‘However the reality is that a significant number of these innovations will fail in the development phase, during market introduction or even worse, after market introduction. This can result in long development times, quality deficiencies and short lifetimes. In order to avoid such disasters, innovators need to manage their development process efficiently, by preventing deficiencies in design and manufacturing and by creating a reliable and safe design. This is what we organise in the TechMed trial centre.’

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Holland Innovative specialises in streamlining high-tech product development through project management, reliability design and Design for Six Sigma – a product design method based around early detection of customer need. Prior to the trial centre’s official launch, Holland Innovative had already joined forces with UT Technical Medicine students for a round of pilot projects. One of these envisions a safer way to treat scoliosis, with the help of a 3D-printed spinal drilling jig operated through MRI imaging.

Similarly, Panton had also been involved in a pilot project with the University, under the name of ‘Arthur’. It involves the detection of tumours in the lymph nodes through magnetic particles operated by an MRI. ‘Metastasis of breast tumours are normally localised and assessed with radioactive tracers, injected in the patient,’ explains Patrick Meutstege, design engineer at Panton. ‘Not every hospital has a nuclear department though and patients are not very comfortable with nuclear particles in their body. So we needed to come up with a new device to replace these radioactive tracers with magnetic particles. The UT was concerned that the application of this device wouldn’t match the needs and possibilities of medical professionals if only technicians were working on it, so that’s where we came in to ensure a user-friendly design, usability and interface development.

University of Twente

Prototype testing for project ‘Arthur’

‘This was a wonderful team effort where we learned and laughed a lot. The project taught us a great deal about the possibilities and capabilities of the UT, while the UT learned what a good and valuable contribution industrial designers can be to its projects,’ says Meutstege.

A holistic approach to training

In addition to the technical support, the TechMed trial centre will also organise several workshops going beyond product development, to analyse current business models in medtech, says Burie. ‘What we try to do is really start focusing on specific knowledge domains, and we are currently looking internally at the knowledge areas in which we excel and which will drive our future strength.

Remke Burie

Remke Burie

‘The big chance that we have is that the University is covering the technological, behavioural and health economics part of developing a device.

We will organise several workshops and training sessions not only on product development and design but also on creating the awareness of the current business models in medtech. As a spinoff company I think it’s really hard to learn all of this by yourself that’s why we try to create a better culture in how to find innovative ways to bringing a product to market.’

Applications for the first round of projects have now closed but a second round will be reviewed on 1 December. To be eligible for participation in the programme, an applicant’s device must be of ‘Technology Readiness’ Level 4 (with the presence of a prototype). For further details, check out TechMed proeftuin’s application guidelines or send an email to techmedproeftuin@utwente.nl.

About the author

Doris has a Masters Degree in Magazine Journalism and has previously worked on the editorial desk of Good Housekeeping Magazine UK. She was also a data research associate at DrugDev, an online pharma clinical trials hub based in London.

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