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University of Utah Technology Venture Development Inc.

SALT LAKE CITY — As an orthopedic and spinal surgeon in training in 2004, Dr. Alpesh Patel knew there had to be a better way to detect when a surgeon accidentally nicks an esophagus or a bowel with a scalpel.

"When it does occur it actually can be pretty devastating to a patient, with a high mortality rate," Patel said. "There wasn't a great way in real time to detect that this injury has occurred." In fact, most leaks aren't detected until after the surgery site is closed and the patient begins to exhibit symptoms of a complication.

It is estimated that about 10,000 nicks and leaks happen in the United States each year. Patel came up with the idea of using a device to fill an esophagus or bowel with a fluid, either colored or clear. If nicked, the fluid leaking out can alert the surgeon to the problem before closing up.

Patel knew he had a great idea, and even wrote a research paper on it and created a prototype in 2006. But he was a surgeon, not a businessman, and he had no idea, beyond patent paperwork, on how to form a business or how to market his device.

Enter MBA students Nic Anderson, Michael Burr and Ryan Murri. Applying what they've learned at the business school, the entrepreneurial trio helped Patel create a business plan and get his company off the ground. Monitus Medical now has capital investors and is about to submit the device for preliminary FDA approval.

The Monitus Medical story is just one example of the partnerships the U. is forming between science inventors and business students.

While many universities will secure patents for medical devices, not many actually help an inventor start their own business. The University of Utah leads the nation in the number of tech startups due to its unique system of grants and business development programs.

This year, the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center at the David Eccles School of Business celebrated its 10th anniversary. Since its creation in 2002, the center has overseen the creation of around 30 startup companies. The center was started with a $13.25 million grant from mining businessman Pierre Lassonde, who is a U. alumni.

The center now awards about $100,000 in scholarships each year to graduate students who work with scientists to start up news companies. The center also awards an additional $125,000 for undergraduate student entrepreneur competitions.

Burr said the group spent a year defining the market, discovering additional uses for the device and researching licensing and regulatory issues. "Once we had an idea of some of the costs associated with development, we were able to write a business plan which we have shared with multiple competitions and some potential investors," Burr said.

"This is a tremendous cost to the health care system. Currently there is no standardized method of leak and perforation detection, from hospital to hospital, or even doctor to doctor," Burr added. "It is very exciting to have the opportunity to save lives, participate in lowering the economic burden to the health care system, and create jobs in the process."

Anderson said in addition to countless meetings with leaders in the medical device industry and research into the FDA clearance process, the group competed in business plan competitions in Utah, London and at Rice, Carnegie Mellon and Purdue universities.

The trio said they quickly realized the development potential for the device: The device was fairly simple, and could be made with already-approved FDA materials.

"The Lassonde Center has exceeded our expectations since we started it 10 years ago," center director Troy D'Ambrosio said. "This is not just an exercise. The students write business plans for the faculty (inventors), who often use the plans and hire the students to help implement them. These students become highly sought after by local and national companies."

Murri didn't have a job offer waiting for him when he graduated with his MBA; he had three of them. Murri said unlike other competing MBA grads, he was able to throw down a copy of the Monitus business plan to potential employers as a solid example of what he has accomplished.

In fact, all three MBA grads now work as professionals in the biomedical device industry.

"This professional experience is as real as anything else I could have done," Burr said. "This experience has also helped me to network with biotech and medical device professionals. The Lassonde Center was my favorite and most valuable experience from the University of Utah."

To date, the center has had about 160 students go through the program. D'Ambrosio said when polled, 95 percent of graduates have noted that their Lassonde scholarship was an important factor in starting their careers.

Patel said he doesn't think his device idea would have grown into a business without the Lassonde Center program. "As an inventor, it makes me happy because these are things that I wouldn't think of doing." In his experience, Patel said it is very uncommon for universities to help faculty members start their own company.

Patel is now ready to submit his device for FDA approval. Depending on what medical trials are needed, the device may be on the market within two years.

e-mail: gfattah@desnews.com