Startup Spotlight: CardioLink – Innovation for Heart Surgery

Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with CardioLink, this year’s McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize winners for outstanding dedication towards establishing their business venture. Learn more about the entrepreneurial journey of this multidisciplinary team of healthcare innovators from the Surgical Innovation Program to the McGill Dobson Cup 2017.

READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017

CardioLink was brought together by the Surgical Innovation Program offered jointly by three universities across Montreal – McGill University, École de technologie supérieure (ETS) and Concordia University – to spark innovation and fulfill unmet medical needs in surgical devices, particularly in cardiac su

Daniel speaking at the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 Award Ceremony

rgery. Working together in this mission, CardioLink proves that when doctors, engineers and business people collaborate great things may happen.

The team (pictured in the cover photo above) consists of six graduate students with complementary expertise: Susan Ge, M.Sc. candidate in Experimental Surgery at McGill University; Daniel Kurylowicz, MBA candidate at the John Molson School of Business; Kashif Khan, M.Sc. candidate in Experimental Surgery at McGill

University; Jeffrey Kent, master’s candidate in Biomedical Engineering at McGill University; Masoud Razban, chief design engineer and PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Concordia University; and Shen Li, master’s candidate in Software Engineering at Concordia University.

CardioLink aims to revolutionize valve replacements in open heart surgery by creating a surgical device to improve speed and efficiency while reducing overall health costs.

How did it all start?

DK: It actually started as a school project. We were partnered together for the Surgical Innovation Program which focuses around innovation within surgeries. We actually had the opportunity to go the Glen hospital and watch different open heart surgeries with the goal of finding a problem that needed fixing – an unmet need. So, we went and observed a bunch of surgeries… We found hundreds of needs just by speaking with the surgeons and nurses there. We found this one need we thought we could tackle and that is what we’re working on solving now.

What is the Surgical Innovation Program?

DK: The program is a partnership between three universities: Concordia, McGill and ETS. The idea is to bring together doctors, engineers, business students from all three schools, put them in teams and give them access to hospitals.

KK: That’s why we have people with different backgrounds in our team. We were paired together on purpose based on our academic backgrounds, interests, personality, etc.

JK: The program is over two semesters. The first semester is focused on finding an unmet medical need and figuring out what could be improved upon, and the second semester is actually doing it.

SG: The program is in fact designed after the Stanford Biodesign course.

DK: The idea behind this program is that because I’m in business, when I go and watch a surgery, I start asking questions… Why do you do this? Why do you do that? Because they’ve been doing it for so long, you see it differently because you don’t have that ingrained knowledge. That’s the whole idea behind the class. You bring inexperienced people. They ask questions. Find a need. Start solving it.

What motivated you to participate in this program?

KK: For Experimental Surgery, it’s a professional specialization within the program.

SG: For me, it’s an elective. Because I will be doing surgery in the future, I wanted to see the process of identifying needs within surgery and how it goes from a problem to a surgical device used in the operating room. I thought that was interesting.

JK: My first choice [for my master’s degree] was to go to UBC because their entire program is basically this course. For two years, that’s the whole focus. I didn’t know this class existed at McGill, so I’m really happy to be here.

What is the unmet need that you are focusing on?

DK: We are focusing on how valve replacements are performed. Right now, the valves are manually sutured by hand. It’s very time-consuming and there is a higher risk for patients the longer they are on cardio-pulmonary bypass. What we want to do is to make that entire process faster because it saves money, it’s safer for patients and it simplifies the process for surgeons as well. In terms of the broader landscape in cardiac surgery that we need to consider, there is a growing trend towards minimally invasive options such as transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI).

Right now, the [heart] valves are manually sutured by hand. It’s very time-consuming and there is a higher risk for patients the longer they are on cardio-pulmonary bypass. What we want to do is to make that entire process faster […].

JK: TAVI has been the up and coming thing for decades now. At first, it was supposed to replace open heart surgery, but 20 years later, it still hasn’t… Open heart surgery is still performed more often than TAVI. Even if TAVI becomes more widely available, there will still be scenarios where open heart surgery is necessary.

DK: Right now, TAVI is only approved for certain patient populations… In addition, open valve replacements are useful for patients that require multiple procedures at the same time. In those situations, our product will be even more beneficial because the patient would have to be on bypass even longer.

SG: There are numerous studies showing that the amount of time the patient is on bypass is a predictor for increased post-operative morbidity and mortality, as well as dysfunction in various organs of the body.

How did you identify this unmet need?

SG: We were paired with a cardiac surgeon Dr. Kevin Lachapelle. In the first semester, we went frequently to shadow him in the operating room. We watched many surgeries and identified what we though were problems within the whole process. We then narrowed those down to a couple that we wanted to focus on. We did more research, and finally, we voted on which problem we wanted to focus on based on our interests and our expertise.

How did your academic backgrounds help in that process?

KK: Having a background in science and engineering helped us understand the language of the surgeon. In terms of the surgery and the structures of the heart, it was good to have explanations from him about what he was doing during the surgery.

SG: As someone with a medical background, I’ve seen a lot of surgeries – it was not new to me, but it was interesting going in with a different mindset… I am not watching the surgery to learn the surgery now, I am watching the surgery to see the process of the surgery. Very interesting.

As someone with a medical background, I’ve seen a lot of surgeries – it was not new to me, but it was interesting going in with a different mindset… […] trying to see what could be done differently.

Usually, when you are assisting in surgery, you are not thinking about any of that. You just accept “this is how you do it, it’s always done this way, we’re just gonna keep doing it like this…” Now, you go in and think “oh, wait, we’re trying to see what could be done differently.” Nowadays many surgeons are involved with startups and it’s something that I would also like to do in the future as a surgeon.

JK: That’s exactly why I’m in Biomedical Engineering. Originally, I was planning to go to med school, but in medicine, they want people who keep doing things the way they have been done because they know it will work rather than trying something new, which is why I decided to stick with engineering where I can change things.

Overall, what are you trying to accomplish with your venture?

JK: Assuming that we get to the point where our product does get produced and sold, we think it will make a big impact on cardiac surgery itself. If we can help cut down surgery time by a half hour.

DK: Higher patient safety, less time on bypass. It’s better for the surgeons too, less frustrating. It would reduce costs and make it better for patients.

So, why take your Surgical Innovation project into the McGill Dobson Cup?

DK: Why not? The McGill Dobson Cup was an opportunity to pitch our product, practice, learn more…

JK: We thought it would give us a leg up. We figured we would get some extra experience and mentors. Our McGill Dobson Cup mentors gave us really good advice.

SG: It also validates our idea. Now, it’s not just something for class. It could be something bigger and real that people other than our professors are interested in. It was nice just because a lot of the stuff that we do in class was applicable to the McGill Dobson Cup and a lot of the work we did for the McGill Dobson Cup also was applicable to some of the assignments we have to do in class so, it worked out well together.

CardioLink in the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 Finals

How was your experience pitching at McGill Dobson Cup?

SG: We were actually really surprised how helpful the judges were at the McGill Dobson Cup. We thought they would grill us, but they were very helpful and wanted us to succeed.

JK: We anticipated the judges to be more like “why don’t you know this?”, “why don’t you know that?”, but no, [at the McGill Dobson Cup] it was a lot of “you should consider doing this” and “we could help you with that.” It was super positive. I was really impressed.

KK: It was nice that they wanted to mentor us afterwards. We had Pierre Laurent and Kent Hovey-Smith who really helped us with various aspects of our project: how to present properly, what topics to focus on, technical aspects of our project… They really helped us polish our pitch for the finals.

DK: One of the things that Kent told us was to focus on the exit strategy for our startup. We worked that into our pitch and the judges in the finals really liked that.

You won the McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize 2017. Does that say something about you?

DK: It does say something about us given how long we’ve been working on this. We didn’t anticipate making it this far. We’ve been working on it for less than half a year and we’ve already accomplished so much. Now we want to keep this momentum going.

JK: I really feel that we put in a lot more than the bare minimum. We invested a lot of time and effort.

SG: I think most of us are spending more time on this than on our actual school work!

How was this entire experience for those of you who don’t have as much business background?

KK: I think it was tougher for us who only have science and engineering backgrounds because we don’t really take that many business classes. A lot of the terminology was new and we had to do a lot of background research.

SG: I’m taking the Basic Business Skills course through McGill SKILLSETS to get more knowledge on that aspect just because it’s applicable to what we’re doing.

JK: My dad is a Chartered Accountant (CA). He has been teaching me business stuff my whole life. So, I did have a little bit of background… He actually taught me about stock options when I was 13!

DK: That’s the idea behind the team too. We really have expertise for everything: a bunch of different engineering expertise, business expertise, medical expertise, and cardio expertise. We have a well-rounded team that covers all the bases.

SG: And we learn a lot from each other too.

CardioLink in the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 semi-finals

What have you learned about entrepreneurship that you didn’t know before?

SG: Everything! I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship before. For people with no business background, once you enter this entrepreneurial world, you find out that there is so much out there. Before doing this project, I had no idea that Montreal had such a great startup ecosystem and there are so many events and innovation going on. Now, I see it everywhere. It opened my eyes to a whole new world!

KK: The entire process from start to where we are now at least… One of the major aspects our mentors stressed was the validation of the unmet need. Find a problem first and then build a solution around the problem.

JK: One of the things that I never thought about before is that when you’re pitching, you should talk about the problem and the market for 90% and the solution for 10%. As an engineer, obviously, I thought exactly the opposite. It’s the mistake that many people make.

Another thing I’ve learned was something Pierre said. You should be able to describe your company in 3 words, 30 seconds, 3 minutes and 30 minutes. When you describe it in 3 words, the entire team should agree on those 3 words. We ended up doing that and we had very similar answers. The fact that we were on the same page and in sync was very valuable.

DK: Also, going into the medical device field, there’s a lot of complexity in terms of regulatory process. There is just so much to learn going forward. Canada has its own regulations. The U.S. has its own regulations. Europe has its own regulations. Some are easier to get approval in than others. Each have positives and negatives.

What resources were particularly useful to you in this entrepreneurial journey?

KK: One major resource for us was the engineering lab at the Montreal General Hospital run by Lorne Beckman. He has been helping Masoud, our chief design engineer. Masoud received feedback from him on the design of our product – how it could actually work, what materials to use, etc. He has been a really great resource.

DK: We were also able to go to the McGill Anatomy Laboratory early on in our project just to look at some hearts.

JK: At some point, each of us had our own heart. We could literally see the progression of the design for the prosthetic valves.

SG: We arranged to go [to the McGill Anatomy Laboratory] for about an hour and examined hearts. Everyone thinks it’s a very interesting project and offered to help.

What advice would you give to people who are considering participating in the McGill Dobson Cup?

SG: Just do it!

JK: Honestly, you get out what you put in. If you actually put in the work and you go the extra mile and are emotionally invested, you will get a lot out of it.

DK: Don’t hide your weaknesses. Don’t just say your product is great and amazing – you have to talk about the bad too. In our case, we knew we would get questions about our product not being minimally invasive, so we addressed it head-on.

SG: Definitely talk about the competition, the risks… If you bring that up it shows that you’ve thought about it and you’re ready to tackle it if it does come up, whereas if you hide it, something’s wrong.

KK: Don’t be afraid. If you have an idea and you think it’s mediocre, go validate it. Go get some feedback. For researchers, there comes a point where you need to look at the bigger picture and the applications of your research. You don’t have to wait for the rest of the world to start clinical trials, you can start the clinical trials yourself by building your own entrepreneurial venture!

If you have an idea and you think it’s mediocre, go validate it. Go get some feedback. For researchers, there comes a point where you need to look at the bigger picture and the applications of your research.

JK: The worst thing that can happen is that you get a lot of good advice. Listen to the criticism. You have to have thick skin, don’t take it personally. If someone’s investing their time to tell you what you did wrong it’s because they are actually interested and they see potential in you. Use the criticism to make your idea better.

DK: Also, don’t be afraid to share your idea with people and to look for help. Many people think they have the next big idea but when you ask them, they say “well, I can’t tell you.” Nobody is going to be able to help you if you don’t share. Obviously, be smart about it – don’t give away your trade secrets, but build those relationships, build your network, and talk about your idea so that you could get that help. You can’t do it all by yourself! So, put yourself out there and go get help. Especially at universities, people want to help. That’s what universities are there for and the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship as well.

SG: Having a great team helps too. It makes everything easier!

Thank you for sharing your interesting entrepreneurial journey and congratulations on winning the McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize 2017!

Nely Gaulea

Nely Gaulea

Nely is a graduate student in Strategy & Entrepreneurship and an ambassador for the McGill Dobson Centre. Her main interest is in the life sciences sector and collaborative innovation at the intersection of business, healthcare and technology.