News Release

Friday, August 24, 2018

Assistive surgical devices shine in DEBUT biomedical engineering design competition

NIH and VentureWell award five undergraduate teams for innovative devices that improve medical procedures.

Projects focused on providing simple, low-cost modifications to surgical techniques that could reduce pain or damage from these procedures dominated this year’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge. The DEBUT challenge, a biomedical engineering design prize competition for teams of undergraduate students with prizes worth $65,000, is an annual contest supported by a public-private partnership between the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of the National Institutes of Health, and VentureWell. VentureWell is a not-for-profit organization that supports an emerging generation of science and technology inventors and the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems critical to their success. This is the third year that NIBIB has joined with VentureWell, extending the collective reach and impact of the DEBUT awards.

Of the 36 eligible entries received from 25 universities in 15 different states, NIBIB selected three winning teams based on the significance of the problem being addressed; the impact on clinical care; the innovation of the design; and the evidence of a working prototype. VentureWell selected two additional winners based on market potential and patentability. The prizes will be awarded in a ceremony at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference in Atlanta on Oct. 18.

“The designs show how fresh eyes can develop simple, low-cost solutions that can improve healthcare and it is clear that students like these are the future of biomedical engineering,” said Jill Heemskerk, Ph.D., acting director of NIBIB.

NIBIB’s first-place prize of $20,000 went to a team from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, for a minimally invasive brain retractor, Radiex, that provides safer surgical access to the brain for neurological operations. Currently, in about 9 percent of neurosurgical operations, the retractor—a tool used to help surgeons access the brain—causes unintentional damage such as brain swelling, hemorrhage, or brain infarction. The Radiex’s rounded design distributes forces around a circular opening, and the small diameter easily accommodates minimally invasive surgeries, limiting damage to the brain.

“This team set out clear technical specifications and went through many different prototypes to achieve their target. Their device has the potential to decrease recovery time, reduce major complications that endanger the patient and prevent the need for post-operative care,” said Zeynep Erim, Ph.D., the program director managing the DEBUT challenge at NIBIB. “The detailed testing of the prototype, in collaboration with neurosurgeons, using brain phantoms and cadavers, also impressed our judges.” 

The second place NIBIB prize of $15,000 was awarded to a team from Clemson University, South Carolina, for developing a device that can assist in the resection of the tibia (one of two bones in the lower leg), helping reduce the amount of vein and ligament damage and other complications during total knee replacement procedures. It also allows for the complete resection of the tibia without any other tools or technicians, making the procedure quicker and easier for surgeons.

NIBIB’s third place prize of $10,000 was awarded to a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, for their device called the Neuraline. It was developed to facilitate the placement of epidural anesthesia during labor and delivery. The current method of epidural insertion requires the technician to feel a loss of resistance in order to identify the epidural space in the spine. However, the loss of resistance can be highly variable depending on the individual patient and skill of the technician. One in eight attempts at this procedure results in complications ranging from post-dural puncture headaches to cardiac arrest, and even death. The Neuraline is designed to provide an objective measure of bioimpedance — the resistance that different tissues have to electricity — that will alert the technician to the needle’s location and when it has reached the correct epidural space.

The Venture Prize of $15,000 was awarded by VentureWell to another team from Clemson University who designed a device to help guide surgeons when they place orthopedic screws to set and repair broken bones. If the screw is misaligned with the hole that was initially drilled, it can lead to unnecessary pain as well as additional surgeries. The Concentracizor 4 is a simple device that uses gyroscopes to record the drilling alignment and guides the surgeon back to the proper angle for screw placement using LED lights. The device is handheld, light, and can accommodate any size surgical drill.

VentureWell’s Design Excellence Prize of $5,000 went to a team from the University of California, Riverside, for the Talaria—a magnetic ankle brace that aims to provide personalized support. Using sensors, it is able to detect when the ankle has rolled past its natural threshold (after being personally calibrated to each user’s range of motion) and employs magnetorheological fluid to instantly support the ankle when needed. This type of personalized brace could help decrease both recovery time as well as the chance of further injury.

“The DEBUT Competition draws top design and innovation projects from undergraduates at universities and colleges across the U.S., and this year’s winners once again represent a compelling group of health and healthcare innovations,” said Phil Weilerstein, President of VentureWell. “The DEBUT submissions demonstrated the application of effective design principles to apply emerging science and technologies to create innovative solutions and the attention to regulatory and safety requirements. The winning teams emerged from a rigorous external review by panels of industry and technical experts. We are impressed with the ingenuity of the winners and are excited by the potential of their innovations to improve patient experience and outcomes.”

Descriptions and videos of the winning projects can be found here:

The mission of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) is to improve health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies. The Institute is committed to integrating the physical and engineering sciences with the life sciences to advance basic research and medical care. For more information about the NIBIB, visit 

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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