Bioinnovate puts the user at the centre of med-tech innovation

21 Feb 2014

Bioinnovate Ireland fellows Rhona Hunt (left) and Michelle Tsai

Bioinnovate Ireland fellows Rhona Hunt and Michelle Tsai are putting the user at the centre of new ideas in medical innovation, they tell Claire O’Connell.

When you want to develop a solution, it helps to have a good understanding of the problem it is trying to fix. So the Bioinnovate Ireland fellowship programme brings innovators into the clinic, where they can observe closely, identify real needs, and go on to develop solutions that could be brought forward to market.

The current focus of the 10-month programme is on gastroenterology, and it has involved full-on immersion in the clinical environment, explains Rhona Hunt. She is one of two female Bioinnovate ‘fellows’ on the 2013/14 course, which kicked off last August.

“We did a boot camp for the first month,” she says. “That was jumping in the deep end, meeting with entrepreneurs, regulatory and marketing experts and we had lectures from doctors.”

After that the fellows across three teams based at Limerick, Cork and Galway spent time in various hospitals, watching surgeries and procedures. “We were looking for any issues (where) you could think ‘that could be done in a better way’,” says Hunt, who is in the Limerick-based group.

Keen observations

The key was to consider everything from how the patient got to the table to how the surgical procedure was carried out, Hunt notes. “You take a global perspective on it – who is involved in the situation and what could you do to make it better.”

The Limerick team of three started with a list of around 700 observations and whittled them down to just four. “You put the observations through filters,” explains Hunt. “You ask what impact would it have on the patient if we did something about this problem and what impact would it have on the provider. Also we needed to look at it from a business point of view, what would be our burden of proof, and we needed to have a measurable outcome, such as reducing mortality.”

Background in design

A native of Roscommon, Hunt studied industrial design at Sligo IT and Carlow IT and worked at BMR in Galway. “There was a great clinical team there that inspired my focus in biomedical engineering and I learned so much there,” she says.

Hunt then went travelling around the world, but took time out to go forward for Bioinnovate. “I came back from Australia to do my interview,” she says. “It was a big risk to take but well worth it.”

She has particularly enjoyed spending time in the clinic, and recognises the support of the University of Limerick’s Graduate Entry Medical School, Kemmy Business School and the Nexus Innovation Centre. And the varied nature of the team members, who typically have medical, engineering, business or technical backgrounds, makes for enthusiastic discussions.

“Everyone brings a lot of value to the table when we all get together, the value of conversation is immense,” she says. “There’s so much experience and excitement and enthusiasm for moving forward.”

From California to Galway

For Michelle Tsai, being a Bioinnovate fellow has meant moving from Silicon Valley in California to Galway. Originally from South California, she studied bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley, carried out lab research and worked as a sales and marketing consultant before deciding to get back into engineering.

She’s currently on a break from working on a master’s degree at Stanford University in California, where she has worked with the Stanford Biodesign programme on which Bioinnovate is modelled.

When she found out about the Irish programme she jumped to apply. “It looked like a really interesting opportunity,” says Tsai, who is supported in the Bioinnovate fellowship by the Whitaker International Program. “The healthcare system is different everywhere in the world so it’s interesting to see what it is like elsewhere. And what I’ve seen is that the clinical access is much better here.”

Tsai and her three teammates made around 1,000 observations and sifted them down to a handful that could offer commercial opportunity. She plans to return to Stanford to finish her master’s degree, and her big take-home from the Bioinnovate experience is the mindset.

“A lot of it is how to think about innovation,” says Tsai. “Understanding the problem is really important and if I ever want to make a product it’s about understanding the user and really going out and interacting with that user.”


Hunt agrees it’s about putting the user at the centre of innovation. “In design, you can have a solution and you try to find a need around it, but in the Bioinnovate programme it is the other way around,” she says, adding that the course has given the team members valuable exposure to clinical practices and medical-technology networks. “We have made a lot of contacts.”


Bioinnovate Ireland is supported by Enterprise Ireland, corporate sponsors, and academic partners (National University of Ireland, Galway, Dublin City University, University College Cork and the University of Limerick).

Bioinnovate is now accepting expressions of interest for the 2014/15 fellowship, but get your skates on, the deadline is 28 February.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. On 7 March 2014, we will kick off the campaign’s second year. Let’s change the ratio.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication