Human-machine interaction and innovation in healthcare
Nevan Hanumara works with clinicians to develop medical device solutions to interventional challenges. He has hands-on prototyping, testing and project management expertise, and supports entrepreneurship as a mechanism for technology commercialization.
Nevan Hanumara has been a research scientist in the Mechanical Engineering department at MIT for well over a decade. He received both his PhD and MS in Mechanical Engineering, before joining the faculty. It is a relationship that has served him well. “At MIT I really fell in love with the innovative spirit, the can-do attitude, and I also became heavily involved with healthcare,” he says. “My area of research is where humans and machines interact, and there really is no closer place in the world than when we walk into a hospital and we see doctors, nurses, and clinicians using their tools to care for their patients.” His interest in healthcare, combined with a passion for innovation, is evident in his research and design of precision medical tools, the guidance he provides to his students, and the important work he does outside the realm of academia, partnering with industry to bring medical technologies to the world at large.
Hanumara teaches the Medical Device Design course at MIT. It’s fitting, if we consider the fact that this class was, by his own admission, the first to galvanize his inclination towards machine design and human interaction when he was a student. At that time the course was called Precision Machine Design. Now, under Hanumara’s guidance, his students take on challenges from the local clinical community, run them through their design process, and devise proof-of-concept prototypes for new medical technologies with the intention of finding pathways for those projects into the next stage of development. Some prototypes play essential roles in academia, either as published papers to aid students or as lab and research tools. Others lead to the creation of intellectual properties or student-launched start-ups. Hanumara’s enthusiasm for bringing together engineers and physicians to work on design projects is evident. “It is exciting to work with clinicians, to see their eyes light up when we are able to address their clinical challenges,” he says. In recent years, this process has led to, among other things, an improved tourniquet and a new syringe system, both of which will soon be on the market. Meanwhile, the Mimo Smart Baby Monitor, designed in conjunction with Matt Bianchi of Mass General, is currently available on Amazon.
Another particular area of interest for Hanumara is innovation itself, which he defines as ideation plus execution. Innovation, as he explains it, is inextricably linked with industry and established corporations. Referring to himself, his colleagues, and by extension his students at MIT, he says, “We are extremely good at the early stages and the ideation, but we absolutely have to partner with industry for the execution. Only together does one actually achieve innovation.” This is a symbiotic process. Not only do research scientists and those in the world of academia benefit from partnering with big companies, but the reverse holds true as well. “I think there are wonderful opportunities for companies to better leverage their install-base of very intelligent people. There are wonderful people working in the industry, and perhaps we [in academia] can share some of our tips and tricks for how we so rapidly ideate and bring new technologies to the testable phase.” Hanumara is speaking from experience. He recently co-founded a collaborative initiative called Cambridge Med Space to build what he calls a community of healthcare visionaries, to enable the launch of early-stage technologies and the organizations that build them. Currently, Hanumara is partnered with Zine Medica, one of the largest medical device design companies in the country, to provide expert guidance in an effort to help emerging enterprises graduate from angel-round funding through to series A, and ideally on to mergers and acquisitions.
Hanumara is also part of the founding team that helped build the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, where he did his post-doctoral research. He served as the program manager there for several years, and he remains an integral part of the Center, serving as a mentor for many students in the program. The Tata Center is a channel for graduate level research directed towards challenges experienced by emerging markets. For example, how to use technology to improve the lives of billions of people in developing countries who need quality of life improvements, better products, and better sanitation. Hanumara says it is through his work with the Tata Center that he has come to appreciate and understand the complexity of healthcare challenges in emerging markets. He points to the fact that large medical device companies and healthcare providers are often only able to fulfill the needs of Tier 1 hospitals. However, there are a tremendous number of Tier 2 and Tier 3 clinics in dire need of not only quality equipment, but also appropriate business models.
He explains, “There is a significant opportunity in emerging markets, and I think we are only just scratching the surface of how we can provide the products and services those clinicians need in order to improve their patients’ care.” Furthermore, the pressures faced in emerging markets are more than just cost. “Many people say, ‘we need low cost medical devices.’ But low cost with respect to what? Low cost for whom?” He continues, “What we really need is to deeply understand the performance requirements for that equipment, and design [devices] to those requirements.” Hanumara believes it is essential to enter emerging markets with an open mind. Creative solutions must be tailored to a unique set of circumstances. For example, a fluoroscopy machine, which is typically a big, heavy machine, if made for the U.S. market, might not sell as well in an emerging market. There is a great likelihood that the hospital making the purchase would only be able to afford one, that they would then need to transport throughout the hospital. Making design changes without altering machine performance, like adding large rubber wheels for ease of movement, not only helps those tasked with physically moving it, but also potentially cuts down on wear and tear and extends the life of the machine, staving off the need for routine updates or purchase of an entirely new machine. Solutions found in emerging markets may in fact yield benefits for markets like the U.S. and Europe: “If we create lower cost solutions without compromising performance, there is a great opportunity to bring some of those technologies back to the United States, where 20 percent of GDP is spent on healthcare, and we know we have to improve our efficiencies.”
Given Hanumara’s entrepreneurial bent, his fondness for the relationship that has developed between himself and MIT ILP should come as no surprise. “I’m very grateful to ILP for bringing me into corporate settings and allowing me to engage not just with management, but also for facilitating my engagement with the people who are actually operating the machines, in order to really understand their pain points and learn where there is room for innovation.”
Looking to the future, Hanumara mentions the rapidly developing field of ergonomics in the operating room. He is developing better tools for doctors to use to streamline surgery and post-op care. The goal is to improve the lives of surgeons by decreasing fatigue and improving their recovery time, so they can focus their energy and attention on helping their patients to heal. Given Hanumara’s track record, it’s fair to assume it won’t be long before his designs are revolutionizing the field.