A Bold Experiment

ZIAN Founder Dr Sunil Patel (left) and ZIAN CEO Mark Semler (right)
ZIAN Founder Dr. Sunil Patel (left) and ZIAN CEO Mark Semler (right)

The Zucker Institute for Applied Neurosciences brings together the worlds of engineering and medicine to speed the translation of innovative technology into the clinic

Founded in 2012, the Zucker Institute for Applied Neurosciences (ZIAN), a technology accelerator embedded in MUSC, is a bold experiment in bringing the worlds of medicine and engineering together to speed the translation of technological innovation in the neurosciences into the clinic. ZIAN taps into the creativity of clinicians and provides them access to the expertise in engineering, intellectual property and business development needed to develop their ideas into viable products. The vision of ZIAN’s founder, Sunil J. Patel, M.D., chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at MUSC, is for this to be a self-sustaining model of innovation, in which the licensing of inventions provides the funds needed for the development of new technologies. On a trajectory to achieve sustainability, ZIAN offers a model of successful translational research that could be adopted by other specialties.

The genesis of ZIAN

When Jerry Zucker, a prominent Charleston businessman, received a diagnosis of glioblastoma in 2006, he and his family were surprised at how few treatment options were available. This led to a series of conversations with Patel about why the pace of innovation in medicine was so slow and how it could be accelerated. Patel explained that obstacles to innovation existed in both academia and industry. Physicians, who are involved with patient care every day, often have ideas for new technology, but most abandon these ideas because they do not have the time or support to carry them forward. In contrast, industry has the engineering and product design know-how as well as the business expertise needed to bring a technology into the clinic, but that technology is often less than ideal because it is designed with little input from frontline clinicians.

Zucker and Patel thought there had to be a better way. “We wanted to bring these two worlds together and change the culture,” said Patel. After Zucker’s death in 2008, Zucker’s wife, Anita, donated the money to make that happen, and ZIAN was born.

Patel had witnessed firsthand that bridging the divide between these two worlds could spur innovation while working as a fellow under the famed neurosurgeon and inventor Kenichiro Sugita, M.D. “In his OR, in addition to junior faculty, residents and students, he always had a couple of engineers working on how to improve this and that,” said Patel. That memory stuck with Patel and would become one of the inspirations behind ZIAN.

One of Patel’s first tasks in establishing ZIAN was finding an engineer with a passion for medical innovation and deep industry experience. Enter Mark Semler, who serves as ZIAN’s chief executive officer. While in high school, Semler lost both parents and, like Zucker, became frustrated at the slow pace of innovation. “I watched my parents die in hospital rooms full of equipment,” remembered Semler. Later, when he worked on his first medical device as an engineer, he knew he had found his calling. “I wondered whether I could affect this equipment so that I could have kept my parents alive,” said Semler. Rounding out the ZIAN team are Jesse Goodwin, Ph.D. vice president for development, and biomedical engineer Chris Hapstack.

A model of clinical innovation that works

The ZIAN offices are embedded in the neurosurgery department, so clinicians can easily stop by between cases to brainstorm ideas for devices. Each of the ZIAN offices has an entire wall painted to serve as a large white board. Many of ZIAN’s products have begun as a sketch on Semler’s wall.

ZIAN sparks innovation by encouraging clinicians and engineers to learn to converse with one another.

“Engineers speak a language I don’t understand and vice versa,” said Jessica Barley, Ph.D., CNIM, one of the ZIAN inventors. “I had to bring the engineers into the operating room to show them what the real issue was." But when that translation occurs, magic happens and medical devices are designed that are grounded in the clinical realities of care. Because ZIAN wants to focus its efforts on devices that will help as many patients as possible and is mandated to be self-sustaining, it must be selective in the ideas it decides to take forward.

To be chosen, inventions must address an unmet clinical need, be buildable at a competitive cost, have a clear path to intellectual property and have a wide market. “We don’t want to just create a ‘me too’ device,” said Goodwin. “We want to push the limits of what’s possible.” Thus far, of the more than 150 ideas that have been pitched, ZIAN has pursued only seven. This selectivity has paid off; one of the technologies has been FDA approved, two more are licensed and a fourth is being licensed.

ZIAN's Seven Current Technologies

  • Blink Reflexometer™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Nancey Trevanian Tsai, M.D.
    • Licensing Status: Licensed
    • Description: A portable device for measuring the blink response
  • HEALx™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Bruce M. Frankel, M.D.
    • Licensing Status: Being licensed
    • Description: An expandable corpectomy device
  • NaviCap™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Raymond Turner, M.D., Alejandro Spiotta, M.D., Aquilla Turk, M.D., Imran Chaudry, M.D.
    • Description: A “screw-less” cranial anchoring port system
  • SIMelectrode™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Jessica Barley, Ph.D., and Jonathan Edwards, M.D.
    • Licensing Status: Licensed
    • Description: An improved needle electrode for intraoperative neurophysiological monitoring
  • Sinu-Lok®
    • Clinician-Inventor: Bruce M. Frankel, M.D.
    • Licensing Status: FDA approved
    • Description: A novel replacement for a standard rod implant used in lumbar spine surgery
  • TranZform™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Stephen P. Kalhorn, M.D.
    • Description: A novel interbody device that expands both vertically and horizontally
  • VayuClear™
    • Clinician-Inventor: Stephen P. Kalhorn, M.D.
    • Description: A surgical suction wand declogging device