Utah Company Developing Origami-inspired Technology Awarded NSF Grant to Advance Robotic Surgery

Brittany HancockUtah Innovation Center

Four years ago, Jacob Sheffield was building world-class carbon fiber travel guitars for adventurers journeying to places as remote as Everest and Antarctica. Ian Esplin was growing viruses in bioreactors and developing therapies to combat antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The two came together and co-founded Bloom Surgical with a goal to empower robotic surgeons to resolve visual disruptions during procedures. 

The company recently received a competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for $256,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research and development work on a novel micro-mechanical wiping device.  The Utah Innovation Center provided assistance to the team advising them as they crafted their SBIR submission.

Bloom Surgical CEO, Sheffield and co-founder, Esplin, have collectively launched four businesses. The pair were initially interested in increasing the functionality of minimally invasive surgical tools, and interviewed hundreds of surgeons and medical professionals nationwide, observed operating room (OR) surgical teams, and studied medical journal literature to validate their idea. They found that surgeons do not care about increasing the functionality of their surgical tools – surgeons want disruption-free procedures with visual clarity of the surgical site. 

“The problem of visual disruptions in the OR is only intensifying with the adoption of robotic and automated procedures,” said Sheffield. “This Phase I SBIR will enable us to prove the feasibility of this technology and provide surgical teams with a viable solution to maintain unimpaired intraoperative visualization, allowing the focus to be on patient care and timely procedure processes rather than scope removals and cleaning events.”

As an expert in origami-based engineering, Sheffield brought a unique perspective and skillset to resolving optical disturbances – his answer: a miniature flexible “windshield wiper” attachment device for laparoscopes and endoscopes. This solution is a rapid, in-abdomen, disposable wiping attachment that enables surgical teams to recover scope vision quickly and intraoperatively, eliminating the need to remove the scope from the surgical site for cleaning.

“Many remarkable things are happening in Utah right now, and we are excited to be a part of that growth period and become players in that field. Right now, we are small, but within 3-5 years, we think we can make a presence with innovative technologies,” said Sheffield.  

According to Esplin, the Utah Innovation Center’s agency-specific workshops on SBIRs were crucial for the Bloom team to understand the grant opportunities available and navigate the complexities of the federal grant processes.

Others in Utah’s innovation ecosystem played a vital role in the company’s ongoing success including The University of Utah’s Center for Medical Innovation with their Bench to Bedside program, Brigham Young University, where the technology was developed, and life sciences industry association, BioUtah.

Companies interested in pursuing non-dilutive R&D funding through the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs can contact the Utah Innovation Center at innovationutah@utah.gov to find resources.