When Amy Cowperthwait started work as a nurse educator at the University of Delaware in 2006, she had to complete a form agreeing that the school would own anything she invented during her time there.
Cowperthwait was amused and signed away. As if she would become an inventor. “I remember laughing about it,” she says. “Now, I have several patents.”
After nearly 25 years of emergency room nursing, Cowperthwait began her teaching career using methods that had been in play for several years. Students learned in the classroom and then gained experience during hospital rotations. That changed quickly when UD purchased a pair of high-fidelity simulator mannequins that allowed nursing hopefuls to practice IV sticks, tracheal intubation and other techniques. It was efficient and helpful, but something was missing.
“Health care is science and art,” Cowperthwait says. “You have to address the science and critical thinking, but while the students were learning skills, they weren’t learning how to talk to the patients.”
In 2009, Cowperthwait teamed with UD’s theater program to create a course that taught students how to be human simulators. They learned how to mimic symptoms, give feedback about their conditions and interact with nursing students, who would learn both parts of the job.
That was an improvement step, but it wasn’t enough. After all, it was one thing for a theater student to complain about a throat blockage and quite another for her to allow a nursing student to perform a tracheotomy. To solve that problem, Cowperthwait went to the engineering department to see if it could design a wearable simulation device that would allow the nurses to perform various procedures on the health “actors.” By the fall of 2014, the “SimUTrach” had been created by UD engineering students and was being employed in nursing classrooms.
In January 2015, at the International Meeting for Simulation in Health Care, the SimUTrach won first prize for technology and innovation. Cowperthwait was shocked — and inspired to start a company. From there, it was a matter of getting various licensing agreements, raising money and beta-testing the product for Cowperthwait’s new company, SimUCare. Last June, the SimUTrach was introduced to great response. Later this year, two new products, a sleeve for IV insertion and urinary catheterization shorts, will debut.
“The best thing is hearing the reactions of students,” says Cowperthwait, who decided to change the company name to Avkin, effective June 2017. “They are so happy to be using the product. These are the things that get me excited. I never, ever intended to start a company, but I am learning so much.
“You never stop learning as a nurse, and this is a whole new part of nursing that is fun and a challenge.”