USU Student “Shark Tank”-Inspired Event Paves Way for Future DoD Medical Innovations

A man speaks in front of a group of uniformed people.

By Ian Neligh

It’s never easy to pitch an idea in front of a crowd — especially when it’s partly inspired by the concept used in the “Shark Tank” reality television show.

But in the name of innovation and medicine, five teams stood in front of judges and fellow medical students, and presented solutions for gaps in military medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) on July 23.

The event saw groups presenting ideas ranging from how to more accurately test a soldier’s heatstroke, to building a more effective limb preservation team — and even the creation of a miniature dialysis machine for soldiers wounded in austere conditions.

Three students stand at a podium
Five teams of students pitched solutions for gaps in
military medicine during "Shark Tank" reality
show-inspired event at USU on July 23.
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tom Balfour)
Each team presented their ideas, answered questions from subject experts and their peers, and then scored on everything from their idea’s impact, significance, and innovation of their approach.

The scores for each project will go back to helping the students decide if their ideas were substantial enough to progress to the next level of development and potentially be greenlit to apply for funding.

The Shark Tank-inspired event, the Medical Innovations Panel, was first held in 2019 by the student-led Medical Innovations Interest Group (MI2G) whose goal is to help inspire students to develop novel solutions to medical problems. Faculty advisors originally came up with the idea with the hopes of giving students a way to pursue patents on their innovations.

The idea for the presentations, considered a two-week summer operational experience at USU this year, came about again when some summer pursuits were rescheduled because of COVID-19.

“The student’s summer experiences had to be flexible in July for the class of ’24,” said Dr. Martin Ottolini, professor of Pediatrics and Assistant Dean for Student Research for the Capstone Program. “COVID restrictions had made some of their traditional summer operational training courses unavailable for their class — so several of them wanted to make good use of some unexpected free time.”

Ottolini said Navy Ensign Robert Weishar, current student president of MI2G, brought up the idea this semester of providing a structured two-week experience where the medical school students would once again gather with a handful of senior staff to develop ideas.

“Initially students were supposed to be doing things such as dive training, dive medicine, air assault, and other military operations but COVID had sort of nixed that and so we were left with this period this summer (that was) kind of up to us to figure out what to do,” Weishar said. “So I thought it was a great opportunity for us to investigate gaps in military medicine and where we could kind of do background research and suggest alternatives to what’s out there right now.”

Weishar said as part of his biomedical engineering undergraduate degree he had to work with physicians to design products as if they were clients.

“I had a lot of fun utilizing innovation skills to build things for doctors that could be used in the future,” Weishar said. “And it is something that I think would benefit USU if students had the chance to innovate in a military setting.”

A group of students and judges sitting at tables looking at presentations.
Uniformed Service's University students presented ideas ranging from how to more accurately test a soldier's heatstroke, to creating a miniature dialysis
machine for soldiers wounded in austere conditions at the Medical Innovations Panel. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Tom Balfour)

Weishar reached out to as many USU physicians as he could to see if they would help — and if there were gaps in military medicine they wished there was a solution for.

Ottolini said he wanted the student groups to take away from the experience that research in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)  is about teamwork, and requires a partnership of people from diverse backgrounds working together.

“USU is a really rich environment where senior mentors guide junior officers and that has been a fundamental virtue of this school for 50 years,” Ottolini said. “There’s a sincere and generous atmosphere of mentorship in our community.”

According to Ottolini, the event brought in four colonels, two lead scientists, plus senior experts from the school’s research administration, all working to get the students more familiar with subjects that may become a part of their careers for the next 30 to 40 years.

“It’s really trying to expose them to the opportunities in the DOD,” Ottolini said. “I think the key thing is they defended the quality of their ideas to their peers and looked for guidance on how to improve or consider things that they hadn’t thought about.”

Weishar said he and his group, which focused on developing a portable dialysis machine, agreed they would move forward with their idea and apply for funding to build a prototype.