BluHaptics' underwater robot apparatus

Ideas churn out of a research laboratory every second of every minute of every day. Several of these laboratories, doubling as “idea machines,” exist at the UW. 

However, with each discovery and each publication arises a logical question: What will the application of these ideas and technologies be? And how will it be carried out?

From the UW BioRobotics lab and UW Medicine come two of several new companies that have emerged to answer this question: BluHaptics and C-SATS. Each represents one method of bringing the innovations developed in the laboratory to the real world.

Teleoperation: advancing the human element

The Mars rover and a TV remote are both examples of teleoperation technology. These “remote operation” devices, more specifically robotics, are a major research focus of Professor Howard Chizeck, a professor in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering and co-director of the UW BioRobotics lab.

Chizeck and his students were previously working on haptics technology for surgical robots. Haptics is a type of “tactile-feedback” technology dealing with the sense of touch. While looking for funding, Chizeck saw a request for a proposal from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), a consortium of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The request was for new technologies to clean-up unexploded munitions underwater. Chizeck started thinking about whether the surgical robotics technology could be applied here as well.

“We’re sitting around the table and say ‘Oh what we’re doing for surgical robots, we could do that with big underwater robots,’” Chizeck said.

With the help of CoMotion, a program at the UW for start-up companies, BluHaptics officially launched in the summer of 2013.

The company aims to improve both safety and efficiency in underwater robotics, and has team members specializing in research and/or business.

“Having a marriage of the two, in our case experienced entrepreneurs and researchers working together, is from my perspective the best path for success,” said Don Pickering, Chief Executive Officer of the company. 

Moving forward, the company has many goals, both technological and commercial. Chizeck believes a great deal of potential lies in the underwater robotics technology being developed.

“The technology level out there is two or three generations behind what’s possible,” Chizeck said. “So BluHaptics is modernizing and providing new technology for humans’ control of robots.”

Improving quality, one practitioner at a time

The research a surgeon, a biostatician, and an engineer spent years conducting led to the emergence of Crowd Sourced Assessment of Technical Skills, or C-SATS. 

“We’re focused on quality,” said Derek Streat, Chief Executive Officer of C-SATS. “Our goal is to help … all healthcare practitioners produce better [outcomes] for their patients. And we have a method that allows us to do that, that really hasn’t been done technically before.”

Co-founders Dr. Thomas Lendvay, M.D., associate professor in the UW Department of Urology and member of the Executive Committee for the Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Skills. (ISIS), Dr. Timothy Kowalewski, Ph.D., director of the UW Medical Robotics and Devices Lab, and Dr. Lee White, a recent Ph.D. from the UW BioRobotics lab, studied “effective assessment, learning and improvement models for healthcare practitioners.” 

Lendvay noticed the lack of assessment for physicians after medical school and board certifications. Assessment after these milestones typically involves lecture-based courses rather than hands-on demonstration of skills.

Due to the increased expense, time, and subjectivity, formal assessments of technical skills are not common. But Lendvay, Kowalewski, and White came up with the idea for a “crowd-sourced” technical skills assessment, where internet reviewers, rather than expert surgeons, judge the practitioner’s skill over video. Their results in 2013 showed that 500 internet reviewers could rate a surgeon’s technique as accurately as ten expert surgeons.

Their findings showed a positive correlation between the internet reviewers’ ratings and the ratings of the experts. It was then that Lendvay, Kowalewski, and White assembled a team of biostatisticians and business experts to bring C-SATS to life, with the help of CoMotion. 

BluHaptics and C-SATS are just two examples of the companies that are arising from UW research laboratories. This trend is being noticed by entrepreneurs, who are looking to bring the ideas generated in the lab to the general public.

“There are a lot of novel and potentially valuable technologies that are created at universities,” Streat said. “There’s just so many really smart people working on so many things, that at a large university, like UW, you’re bound to find some things that have the potential to change the world.” 

Reach writer Zoha Syed at Twitter: @Zoha_S_101

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