Arcade Snake In Your Body: How A Penn State Startup Could Transform Surgery
With the announcement of the inaugural Summer Founders Program in February, Penn State radically changed the game when it comes to summer internships. Instead of toiling for long hours and fetching coffee, students were offered the chance to receive a $10,000 grant for their own summer projects, spearheaded by President Eric Barron, senior Eli Kariv, Penn State alum and Sincerely co-founder Matt Brezina, and the director of development and alumni relations at the Schreyer Honors College Sean Miller.
MichelAngelo RobotScope, founded by Penn State students Matt Reading (far left), Brennan Cornell (far right), Lingqiu Jin (second from left) and recent graduate Rob Chisena (third from left), is one of the six teams taking advantage of the unique opportunity.
The MichelAngelo team is creating a robotic, multi-jointed endoscope for surgeons with the help of doctors at the Hershey Medical Center. An endoscope is a snake-like camera used by medical professionals to inspect the interior of the gastrointestinal tract through a hollow organ or cavity, but multi-jointed robot technology also has practical uses outside the medical field, such as the inspection of jet engines. The MichelAngelo team saw current endoscopes as just simple rubber tubes, and decided to add robotics into the mix to allow for easier control during delicate procedures.
“In current endoscopes, the doctor is holding onto one end, pushing it in, twisting, and he’s got another end [to control it]– it’s a simple system,” Chisena, the project manager, said. “We’re trying to make it so the doctor is not physically touching the endoscope in some way. He’s got a system where he’s got a camera and can pitch the thing left, right, up, or down as he sees fit.”
If you’re still confused, think of the RobotScope like the classic arcade game Snake, an analogy the team often uses in their pitches to explain the device’s use.
“Basically, it’s a camera that allows you to see in front of you, and using that, the doctor can navigate the headpiece,” explained Cornell. “And the rest of it is supposed to follow the headpiece. That’s very much like Snake, except you can’t see the rest of the body.”
Two of the RobotScope’s main advantages that set it apart from the competition is its maneuverability and user-friendly interface. An early prototype of the device was piloted by an Xbox controller, a remote with simple controls that’s easy to use even for those that don’t play video games. Cornell mentioned that operating room costs are roughly $60 per minute, so helping doctors cut down on time in and out of surgery would drastically reduce medical costs for patients.
“What sets us aside is we want to be able to dive deeper into the human body,” Reading said. “Other endoscopes couldn’t make it much past the [duodenum]. We want to be able to go into the small intestine because there’s a lot of [diseases] that form there, a lot of procedures that need to be done there, and [current endoscopes] can’t reach right now.”
The team’s main goal for the summer is building prototypes, with the intention of building as small as possible. As Cornell explained, endoscopes range from 8-12 millimeters. MichelAngelo is attempting to build in the 6-8 millimeter range that meets NOTES (Natural Orifice Translumenal Endoscopic Surgery) standards, which would allow the RobotScope to perform open heart surgery, gallbladder removal, or an appendectomy by entering one of the body’s natural orifices instead of putting patients under the knife.
“The goal is to shrink it as much as possible where you can do procedures inside the human brain,” Reading said. “That’d be us going above and beyond our expectations and winning on all levels.”
Reading recalled his recent appendectomy, describing the three holes the doctors opened up on his abdomen in order to perform the surgery. The heal time was lengthy, but with the RobotScope, external incisions would be a thing of the past.
“Once you get down below 8, you start getting into the realm where you can traverse almost the entire GI tract,” Cornell said. “Below 5 mm is where you get a lot of new functionality — minimal invasive surgery you never even thought of.”
The inspiration for the team’s name, MichelAngelo, was built on this idea of doing something incredible despite limitations. The famous Italian artist nearly went blind while painting the Sistine Chapel because of the constant drips into his eyes.”
“Being able to do these wonderful things blind is along the lines of what we’re going to be doing in making an endoscope that can see within the human body without actually seeing,” Chisena said.
Like most college entrepreneurial success stories, MichelAngelo started as an idea between two roommates. Reading and Chisena met through Innoblue, Penn State’s student entrepreneurship club, and lived together last year after becoming fast friends. Both are mechanical engineers, and grew up with a background in medicine thanks to their families, with multiple surgeons on Reading’s side and Chisena’s parents both working as doctors.
“For the past year, we’ve been talking about where we’d like to see ourselves in the entrepreneurship scene,” Chisena said.
“So we picked the hardest market to develop something in,” Reading quipped, referring to medical devices.
Seeking a student who could help with electrical engineering and programming, Chisena sent an email to all electrical engineering students hoping for a response. That’s where they met Lingqiu Jin — nicknamed “Q” — an electrical engineering and math double major who came on board after an interview, and “has been killing it ever since.” Cornell, a friend and engineering science major, joined the fold to help with a focus on business.
After Reading and Chisena hashed out an idea, Chisena got the ball rolling by taking a trip to Hershey Medical Center to meet with doctors and consultants. Through the Surgical Innovation Group, products are developed and tested based on doctors’ needs. If they find a solution, they can develop the product further and offer it to companies — exactly what MichelAngelo hopes to do.
“He had this project that really wasn’t going anywhere, so we just decided to pick it up and run with it,” Chisena said, referring to a conversation with one of the doctors. “I knew these guys, so they were first choice.”
But the team is facing a difficult choice. If they decide to commit full-time following the summer program, they would need to start rejecting offers from engineering and consulting firms. It’s a frequent internal struggle with budding entrepreneurs — do I turn down a steady paycheck to pursue my dreams with the threat of failure looming over my head?
“Offers start in the fall, so we’re seeing where this goes over the summer,” Chisena said. “We’re going to try and continue to work on it in our next ventures, if the concept still needs to be developed. Once we get to the point where that’s happening, we’ll start looking to increase funding and start working full-time. That’s when we would start turning down offers.”
“If we can have a prototype that allows us to capture funding; that’s our goal,” Cornell added. “Then, we can drop everything and do this.”
As part of the inaugural Summer Founders Class, MichelAngelo knows the success of the program will be judged based on the success of its participants. Cornell explained that the program is offering access to people and resources that the team would never have otherwise, and while they would still be working on the project even if they weren’t chosen, it adds a little more fuel to the fire. Not to mention, an extra $10,000.
“We’re going to want to prove ourselves,” Reading said. “I just want to see this program grow. Once I leave, I want to see it take off, and that would help by having us be successful in the first round.”
Nearing the end of his first year in office, President Barron has taken great strides to improve the entrepreneurial experience of students at Penn State, and the Summer Founders Program is yet another step in turning the university into the preferred destination for talented, creative students and helping those students thrive. Much like the other five teams working this summer, MichelAngelo is appreciative of the president’s support.
“It’s huge,” Chisena said. “The opportunities that have grown out of stuff like [Summer Founders], Innoblue, Lion Launchpad — they’re all growing and you’re starting to see little things pop up everywhere. The more programs you have, the more students you can touch and effect, and I think it’s awesome that the students get to work on their own ideas. It gives them a different perspective to school. It gives them an idea to use what they learned, incorporate new things, and give people something they need.”
“President Barron’s movement enables engineers to create physical products,” added Reading. “Before this movement, I don’t think those funds were available. He definitely enables the product development side of entrepreneurship in engineering.”
Of course, with six teams working hard over the summer to be the best, there’s going to be a natural rivalry.
“You’re talking about six teams that are entrepreneurial in nature, that are go-getters, that are not willing to take no for an answer,” explained Chisena. “There’s some competition; there’s no doubt about it.”
But with no determined “winner” or grand-prize, the environment is much more conducive to learning and sharing than competition. Each team has different goals and is working at a different pace, with a different timeline and different expectations. However, they can all come together to talk about the same experiences, such as finding customer needs and incorporating.
“More than being competitive, I think it’s more important that we help each other out,” Reading said. “We’re all going through the same thing.”
Mitch Robinson, co-founder of Summer Founders member ResumeRuby, has extended an invitation to other teams to get coffee and play golf together. Mobium, another of the six, is helping MichelAngelo with prototyping through the use of their 3-D printers. It’s all in the name of fostering a better entrepreneurial environment at Penn State.
“We want to create a family amongst this first class,” Reading said.
August 1. That’s the date the team set to complete a solid prototype to present to companies in order to obtain more funding. Aside from Chisena, the rest of the team still needs to focus on completing school work in time for graduation before hitting the project full-time. Oh, and there’s just a little issue of finding a place to live and work this summer.
A few professors have offered to lend out work space for the team, but right now, they’re content with Chisena’s apartment. As the project manager working full-time, his walls are covered with prototype designs and Post-It notes of information. The living space might not matter much, however, with the team expected to be working around the clock.
“Normally you work 40 hours on a job. But this is a startup,” Chisena said. “If you work 40 hours, you’re dead. You have to be working whenever you feel like you can work. If you need a break, you need to take that so you can work harder when you come back.”
Reading said he already budgeted time to go home for Memorial Day and see the Zac Brown Band in concert. As far as the others, they’ll take any chance they get to recharge their batteries before putting their nose back to the grindstone.
“It’s going to be rough,” Cornell said. “But at least the way I see it, you need to have time to relax if you’re going to be doing this kind of idea generation.”
Despite the big dreams and aspirations, the team is thankful to be in the position they’re in, and recognize those that that have helped them earn the opportunity to achieve their goals.
“Without people like Eli (Kariv), Matt Brezina, and Brad Bogolea, we really wouldn’t be sitting in this spot,” Chisena said. “The resources around Penn State have been very, very conducive to moving us forward.”
Those resources will be critical over the next several months as MichelAngelo looks to make a strong impression on Hershey Medical, and hopefully, beyond. But Penn State can only take them so far. Come August 1, they’ll have to decide their next chapter.
“We’re going to have to make big decisions,” Chisena said. “Life-changing decisions.”