Innovation Delaware: Health Care

Call Amy Cowperthwait the accidental entrepreneur.

Amy Cowperthwait

Cowperthwait is a School of Nursing faculty member at the University of Delaware, and a few years ago she decided that the simulated patient training being given to medical personnel could be substantially improved. Her first step was to team up with the UD theater program to create a course that taught students how to simulate different conditions and act out symptoms. She then used these “human simulators” to train medical personnel and patient family members. Next, she designed wearable technology with sensory feedback so students could practice performing procedures on the actors.

“I won a national contest using my design,” Cowperthwait says. 

Now she is CEO of Avkin, a Delaware company whose mission is to improve the learning experience and training of health-care employees. Avkin now has 16 employees, plus five products on the market and one on the way, including a hospital-acquired infections (HAI) package aimed at avoiding preventable infections in the training process. 

None of this would have been possible, Cowperthwait says, without the business advice and project funding by the local health-care community. In 2015, she received a $6,000 award through the University of Delaware’s Hen Hatch business pitch program and later a Delaware Bioscience Center for Advanced Technology award for an additional $75,000. In 2017, Avkin received a $750,000 QED (proof-of-concept) grant from the Philadelphia-based regional University City Science Center.

Health-care startups such as Avkin and new product innovations are a growing business in Delaware for several reasons. First, several hospitals and medical training facilities are located in the state, in addition to the research and training resources at the University of Delaware. Second, there are a large number of trained research personnel in the state in all aspects of medical science, from lab assistants to former lab directors. This is partly because the then-DuPont Co. — once a major employer in this category — shed most of its life sciences and pharmaceuticals businesses over the past two decades. Some former employees launched their own companies, while some joined other companies.

From Left: Dr. Bruce Bomann, Lynn Opdenaker Ph.D. and Shirin Moderai Ph.D.

Medical Research is Thriving

Much medical research is being done at local hospitals in tandem with their academic networks. For example, Dr. Bruce Boman at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute of Christiana Care this spring received a $916,577 grant from the Wilmington-based Lisa Dean Moseley Foundation to further his stem-cell research on colon cancer. Boman’s research goal is to control stem cell over-population, which results in the formation and growth of tumors. “While this is mainly lab-based research,” he says, “we are also collaborating with the University of Delaware, which is doing parallel computational studies.” 

 One of the people closely involved with the advancement of research at the University of Delaware is Prabhpreet Gill, a licensing associate working in technology commercialization of university research across several platforms, including health care. “We mostly are looking for commercial partners to develop promising technology,” Gill says, “unless it’s decided that a faculty member or even a student working on the research should commercialize it. We want to determine how best to extract value from our intellectual properties.” Gill estimates that life-science research projects make up about 25% to 30% of all commercialization and licensing work at the university.

Prabhpreet Gill

As an example of his work, Gill cites the recent awarding of a $200,000 startup QED grant from the University City Science Center in Philadelphia to a team of researchers at UD’s College of Health Sciences. The researchers have developed a motorized ankle-foot device for children with cerebral palsy that includes a novel artificial muscle.

Another major hub for medical research is the Nemours Children’s Health System. In January, Nemours announced that two of its research scientists would be receiving grants totaling $2 million from the Lisa Dean Moseley Foundation. The grants “will support pediatric cancer research, in particular the use of stem-cell therapy in the treatment of childhood leukemia,” according to the announcement. Nemours and its Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children are also working to address entrenched disparities in health-care access and outcomes. Nemours’ Office of Health Equity and Inclusion has initiatives for cultural competency training, tracking workforce diversity, improving and monitoring health care literacy, and participating in community engagement. “Nemours seeks to be a national leader in the elimination of pediatric health-care disparities,” says a hospital spokesperson.

Changing the Picture of Rural Health Care

Meanwhile, two medical systems in southern Delaware are undergoing major expansions that will bring innovative treatments to rural populations. 

 Beebe Healthcare, based in Lewes, is working on several new locations across Sussex County, including a second cancer center, a freestanding emergency department and a specialty surgery hospital that houses a center for robotic surgery. 

Towards the end of 2019, Beebe Medical Center in Lewes is set to launch a so-called hybrid operating room, which includes diagnostic imaging equipment as well as surgical tools. “There will also be a radiologist in the room, and [the surgeon] can essentially visualize what’s going on during the surgical procedure,” says Alex Sydnor, vice president and chief external affairs officer. “If they need to move from a diagnostic to an open procedure, they can do it in that room without transferring the patient.” 

In February, Dover-based Bayhealth opened a major new campus in neighboring Sussex County. It includes a hospital and outpatient center, as well as a medical office building where pediatricians and specialists affiliated with the Nemours Children’s Health System will offer pediatric services not previously available in Sussex, says Terry Murphy, Bayhealth’s president and CEO. At the new site, “we’ve expanded our cardiac capability, with extended cardiac testing services, along with cardiac catheterization and interventional radiology services,” he adds. “We’re also expanding our robotic surgery capabilities.” ID

Additional reporting by Matt Ward  

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