Engineering students gain hands-on experience in health technology development

Christian Bag was an extreme athlete who lived on snowboarding, climbing and cycling.

It all stopped 26 years ago when he broke his back on the ice and was paralyzed from the waist down.

However, with a background in automated manufacturing, he soon began designing adaptable off-road bikes so that anyone like him with a spinal cord injury could get back outside and on the trails.

In 2018, Bagg launched a company called Bowhead, which he and a business partner ran out of in his basement. But while the off-road bike was a great innovation, they needed help bringing it to market.

That’s when Page found out about a collaborative engineering program at the University of Alberta that is being run in partnership with Edmonton Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

The Glenrose Rehab Research Innovation and Technology Center (GRRIT) pays engineering students to work in small and emerging health technology companies as well as in healthcare facilities – helping companies and clinicians develop innovations that will ultimately provide vital support to patients and underpin the economic success of industries.

Tatiana Place was the first student from the co-op to join Bowhead. She was in the final stages of her mechanical and biomedical engineering degrees and needed one more co-op training before graduation.

“I found out I was going to move to Calgary and work in (Christian’s) basement,” she says. “I’ve done anything and everything. I’ve built bikes, learned a little welding, done some 3D printing of bike parts and ordered from different suppliers.”

The best part for her, Blais says, is witnessing how bicycles have dramatically changed the lives of paraplegic clients who are getting back into mobility.

She liked her hire so much that she returned to the company as a production manager after graduation and helped bring more co-op students on board. Bowhead now has a large office space, which houses an entire staff of engineers, content creators, and athletes who have sustained injuries.

Tatiana's placeTatiana Place, the first student from the co-op to join Bowhead and now the company’s production manager, is working on an adaptable off-road bike. (photo: attached)

Bowhead is just one of many small Alberta biomedical companies that have benefited from the collaborative program, says Gary Faulkner, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, founder of the initiative.

Launched 13 years ago when Faulkner was appointed director of research and innovation at Glenrose, the program raises outside funding—currently about half a million dollars a year—to provide engineering students to small businesses ready to design technology that helps patients rehabilitate from injury. .

Much of this support has come from the College of Engineering, as well as economic development agencies such as Alberta Innovates and Prairies Economic Development Canada.

About 60 students have been recruited so far, mostly from the Biomedical stream but also some from Mechanical, Civil, Electrical and Materials Engineering.

“I would meet with patients and physical and occupational therapists to identify the challenges a patient faces on a daily basis,” says biomedical engineering student Andrew Archibald, who completed the placement last year.

We then modify an existing product or develop an entirely new device to meet the patient’s needs. It really helped me develop my creativity and forced me to think outside the box.”

He said the experience shifted Archibald’s focus to a more patient-centered profession. He now studies medicine at the U of A and is “passionate about serving the community in a more personal way.”

Faulkner says GRRIT does not care about the intellectual property of any technology it develops. “We just want to help develop a range of health industries that will help patients, while introducing students to entrepreneurial ideas at an early stage.”

He points to an exerciser for the hands, arms, and wrists as another successful product developed through the program. The idea came from processors in Glenrose and has been passed on to Karma Machining and Manufacturing Services in Edmonton – an oil and gas machinery company looking to diversify. The device was designed by a group of fourth-year U of A mechanical engineering students, who refined it with the help of students at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Faulkner says.

Another innovation created by physiotherapists is a computer game that helps people with amnesia navigate a trip to the grocery store. The game’s avatar gives the player a budget for an evening meal and tells them to purchase the necessary ingredients without overspending.

“Our therapists believed this would help people who were beginning to have difficulty with activities of daily living,” says Faulkner.

He says it benefits all parties. “Because of the nature of the projects we work on, we tend to have the best students.”

Students love hands-on experience. “They really enjoy working directly with physical and occupational therapists,” notes Faulkner. “In many cases it changes their lives.”

“I really like him,” says Bliss, three years after first working with Bowhead.

“With a small company, it’s just incredible. I don’t know how I could have found a more perfect job.”

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