“It’s not brain surgery.” That’s a meme we’ve heard for years and years. But for Indianapolis-based NICO Corp., it actually is brain surgery, and the company’s innovators have long tapped into the expertise of Rose-Hulman Ventures to make it happen.
The company’s BrainPath approach to neurosurgical procedures has had a significant assist from Rose-Hulman Ventures. It’s a minimally invasive system that gets neurosurgeons to the part of the brain they need to access with minimal disruption to healthy brain tissue along the path. It lets them illuminate and remove a specific anomaly, collecting and preserving the resected tissue.
“The device we have provides nondisruptive access to the brain,” says Joe Mark, cofounder and chief technology officer. “You don’t have to cut tissue to get to deeper regions of the brain—it displaces tissue.”
Sounds simple enough, but remember that this is brain surgery we’re talking about. As Mark observes, “there were a multiplicity of things and inputs that had to occur to get to a successful commercialized project.” For example, the materials used in any such device are interacting directly with perhaps the most sensitive part of the human body. Their need to be biocompatible is just the start.
The finished product that is inserted into the brain must be able to slide past membranes in the brain without abrading them or cutting any tissue, Mark says. It is part of a system that’s combining numerous technologies to get the job done noninvasively, and thus it must be compatible with other instruments and imaging technologies that are part of that system.
NICO and Rose-Hulman Ventures were able to balance these many needs in the development of the BrainPath system. “They were able to come up with something that indeed accomplished all of the goals,” Mark says. That said, the job is never done, as updates and upgrades are always needed. “There are always ongoing iterations— it’s not just one and done. There are advancements and iterations that occur to the technology.”
Rose-Hulman Ventures goes way back with Mark and other executives at NICO, more than two decades. In fact, many of the same players helped bring to life another pioneer in noninvasive medical devices, Suros Surgical Systems, which was ultimately acquired about a year before NICO was founded in 2007.
Mark says the partnership works through ongoing, regular interaction and sharing of ideas. It’s a fruitful engagement involving Rose-Hulman Ventures expertise along with professors and students, and Mark credits the leadership of Brian Dougherty, senior director, for fueling the collaborative spirit. “You have to look at Rose-Hulman Ventures as an extension of your own organization, as an engineering resource, without having to have people on staff with the depth of resources that the Rose organization has, without having to have them on your own payroll forever.”
The partnership brings many diverse minds and talents to the engineering problems it tackles, he says. “If you employ someone full-time you get their scope of knowledge, but if you have students you have the scope of knowledge they picked up from their professors and the creativity that young minds bring. What you learn from working with these students is that there are a lot of different ways to do something, some better than others. Diversity of ideas brings a stronger answer to whatever you’re working on.”
Inventors, he says, often lock themselves into thinking that their idea is the best idea, and they may discount the variations that others might bring to the table. The variations that Rose-Hulman Ventures adds are highly valuable, he maintains, not just for product development but for related legal reasons. “When you file intellectual property, you want as many variations upon the solutions to the problem as you can file, because it brings stronger IP protection.”
Beyond the practical benefits, Mark also finds the partnership enjoyable. “The excitement and joy the students have gotten from this, no matter what the project was, is extremely beneficial for them and personally rewarding to me to see them grow, using creativity with proper guidance to get the solutions and answers. It is really a joyful thing.”