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Cowperthwait heads to Washington to share Avkin story

Great ideas get their start when something isn't working right.

Not many get much farther than that, but this is the story of a great idea that formed in the mind of a University of Delaware nursing instructor, was tended to by engineering students and faculty, and now is heading off to Washington, D.C., to take a stand on Congress' national platform.

This is the story of Amy Cowperthwait's new company, Avkin.

Cowperthwait is a clinical nurse specialist who teaches in UD's School of Nursing Resource Simulation Center while coordinating Healthcare Theatre, a program she co-founded with Allan Carlsen from the Department of Theatre.

Using simulation technology, she provides specialized instruction that helps students gain the skills and confidence they will need when they start treating real patients.

A patient would not want to be the proving ground when their emergency room nurse first learns how to place a catheter, for example. So nursing students have often practiced such delicate procedures on plastic models to develop expertise.

UD's School of Nursing has state-of-the-art manikins with a lot of built-in technology, a great advance from the kind of practice Cowperthwait recalls from her nursing school days.

"My only memory of simulation was when I had to give myself an injection so I would be able to teach a diabetic the mind-over-matter technique," she said.

Despite the advances, the technology of the manikins "is very complicated to learn," she said, and even the highest-fidelity models could not address one of Cowperthwait's highest priorities for students.

She wants them to develop excellent communication skills – the ability to explain things and reassure patients, even when they must thread tubes into windpipes or other delicate body parts. For this, the plastic people simply weren't cutting it.

Cowperthwait realized it was easier for her because she drew from her experience as an emergency room nurse and spoke to the manikins the way she might have spoken to patients she encountered along the way. The nursing students had minimal bedside experience.

For her students, communicating with a plastic patient seemed awkward, stilted, tough to sustain in a realistic way. And they never heard feedback about their explanation or level of empathy or faced the difficult conversations that are common for health care professionals.

That's the need Avkin was born to meet.

"The quality of communication and the quality of care have a direct impact on patient outcomes," she said.

The company's ingenious invention puts wearable technology on real human beings. The volunteer patients are undergraduate students enrolled in a health care communication class cross-listed in the University's nursing and theatre departments. The students are assigned to study the condition or medical situation the nursing students are addressing.

The devices are made with sensors that detect improper care such as excessive force and signal the actor to respond accordingly. They have anatomically correct features. They also produce sounds that correspond to those that might come from upper and lower lobes of each lung. Students experience the kind of sights, sounds and tactile features they will encounter in real hospital rooms or surgical suites.

Cowperthwait is a nurse with extensive background in emergency room care. Her expertise is health care. Her expertise is not in rigging up sensors and electronic circuits or directing theatre students. She had no idea if such a device was possible, let alone how to produce one.

But she discovered – from a variety of sources – that many students and colleagues had the expertise to turn her idea into a real deal.

Tuesday, she and Joy Goswami, assistant director of the Tech Transfer Center in UD's Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP), will go to Washington to explain the business to potential investors and Congressional representatives as the guest of the National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer.

The NCET2 named Avkin one of the nation's 35 "Best University Startups."

It's the most recent in a growing series of accolades for the fledgling company, which has gained traction with assistance from OEIP, UD's Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, UD's College of Health Sciences, and the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

The Avkin model has won prize money in competitive events such as UD's Hen Hatch, Center for Applied Technology, and the QED Proof-of-Concept Program at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia.

It won first place in technology and innovation at a poster session of the Society of Simulation in Healthcare, then won an oral presentation at the International Meeting of Simulation in Healthcare (IMSH) and the business pitch at Hen Hatch.

"We had proven to the simulation world that we were validated, proven to the engineering world that we had a device that worked, and proven to the business community that we had a smart idea," said Amy Bucha, who serves as a liaison between UD's College of Health Sciences and College of Engineering.

Avtrach is the first product out of the chute and on the market, offering students the experience of tracheostomy care. The device, with the technical name of Tracheostomy Care Overlay System (TOS), is fashioned as a man's chest with a portal at the base of the throat, where the tubing for suctioning and other procedures is inserted. The patient/actor puts the device on and wears it as the nurse practices the procedure required.

It was developed by students in UD's College of Engineering, where mechanical engineers created and refined the device as their senior design project. Matthew Eizardo, who worked on the project as an engineering student, has since has been hired to work at Avkin.

Cowperthwait also worked with UD faculty in mechanical engineering – Liyun Wang and Jenni Buckley – and they teamed with seven students to publish a paper on their work in the Journal of Clinical Simulation in Nursing in May 2015.

After the first prototype was developed, Cowperthwait connected with the students through OEIP's Spin In program. Spin In connects entrepreneurs in need of specific support that they cannot get because of network or capital constraints with multi-disciplinary teams of college students, who help solve real business challenges.

After 15 weeks, the Spin In/Senior Design team delivered a design, which has now been through several refinements.

"The [Avkin] journey gives us a glimpse into the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship that UD possesses when its capabilities work in harmony," said David Weir, director of OEIP. "The University provides innovators and entrepreneurs with funding, intellectual property management, prototype production and testing, marketing, business counseling and planning – a formidable set of strengths.”

There is much more to come for Avkin. Two other devices – one related to intravenous lines and the other to urinary catheter placement – will soon be in beta testing. Four others are on the drawing board.

"We see our relationship with the University as not ending," Cowperthwait said. "We will always start this way. We believe in education and at the same time there is a symbiotic relationship. We have theater, nursing and engineering students working together – where does that even happen?

"We will keep innovating and moving forward."


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