Biomedical engineering dignitary speaks in lecture series

Jack Heneghan, Contributing Reporter

In celebration of the Biomedical Engineering Department’s 50th anniversary, the Ford Distinguished Lecture Series featured a talk by Medtronic Chairman and CEO Omar Ishrak on Thursday, Sept. 6. The lecture took place at the Tinkham Veale University Center and included remarks from biomedical engineering Professor Emeritus John Thomas Mortimer.

Mortimer spoke about the history of Case Western Reserve University’s biomedical engineering program and the school’s relationship with Medtronic, the world’s leading medical technology company.

He explained, “The environment at [CWRU] was ‘characterized by a type of collaboration between engineers and physicians where the traditional boundaries have been broken down to an unusual extent.’”

The relationship between CWRU and Medtronic began in 1966 when Mortimer acquired a radio frequency antenna from Norm Hagfors, the fourth employee ever at a young Medtronic. Mortimer went on to describe a collaborative research effort between the two institutions in 2002 that lead to new knowledge on the mechanism of tissue injury.

This continued relationship was illustrated by the next speaker, Medtronic’s Chairman and CEO.  Ishrak’s talk was on the future of the biomedical engineering industry, the future of the healthcare payment model and Medtronic’s operations.

Evan Vesper, a second-year biomedical engineering major, said, “I thought it would be cool to hear about the biomedical engineering field from someone who’s in the industry, [and] obviously [hearing] the CEO of Medtronic [speak] is a pretty cool opportunity.”

During the lecture, Ishrak broke down the nature of healthcare into chronic care management and episodic care and also discussed the different healthcare payment models.

A “fee for service” model, he explained, is the United States’ current model of healthcare payment, where one pays a doctor under the condition they will alleviate their health issues and if the patient does not see positive results, they continue paying until they do. A “fee for value” model, though, is where a healthcare provider is paid for a specific outcome.

Ishrak argued that the latter system is difficult to implement for three reasons. He said there is difficulty in defining an outcome, determining the cost of achieving that outcome and also in holding all parties accountable so that if the outcome isn’t achieved, people who accomplished their part can still be compensated.

Much like Apple and Microsoft, Ishrak said that Medtronic started out of a garage; their original product was the first ever battery-powered pacemaker. Medtronic is currently the largest medical device company in the world, and is worth about $30 billion. They have been working towards their mission statement: “to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life” for almost 70 years.  

Medtronic’s status in the industry was a big draw for most members of the audience. The event was well attended, with some attendees standing due to a lack of chairs, although many of the over 350 attendees were not current CWRU students.

Robert Kirsch, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering said, “The event was fantastic; we showed Medtronic a good side of the University, and I think we got to interact a lot with people from Medtronic very effectively as well.”

He reflected on how the biomedical engineering department has evolved over 50 years, noting, “We started off with a pretty tight focus on just stimulation devices with a handful of faculty, and now we have 30 faculty [who] are at [CWRU] and about another 20 that are at the Cleveland Clinic.”

Moving from the past to the future, Ishrak also spoke about the future of biomedical engineering at large.

He said, “It’s got a long runway, its got unlimited problems to solve and it can make a real difference in patients’ lives, and it can contribute to creating economic benefit as well by having more healthy people.”

Michael Coyle, Medtronic executive vice president and president for the company’s Cardiac and Vascular Group, said that CWRU students can take specific steps that will help them prepare for a job in the biomedical engineering field.  

“What we’re looking for is deep expertise in certain areas of [biomedical engineering],” said Coyle. “We really value that kind of subject matter expertise, and then, increasingly, [we value] being able to operate on teams that actually move to get products developed, tested and out is important.”

Coyle went on to stress the importance of academic and extracurricular resources to learn how biomedical engineering interacts with other industries. He said, “At the end of the day, [interdisciplinary interactions are] what happen everyday when you come into a company like Medtronic.”  

According Coyle, the areas of the industry seeing the most growth are in the cardiovascular sector.

He explained, “Every aspect of the technology—from the pumps to the sensors to closing the loop—is basically driving growth all over the world, not to mention the epidemic of diabetes.”

The sensors and closed loop which Coyle is referring to is Medtronic’s new closed loop system, where an insulin pump and blood sugar sensor communicate with one another instead of a patient needing to constantly monitor and correct their blood sugar levels. This system received notable publicity when it first came out because it was the first of its kind, nicknamed an “artificial pancreas.” It was almost immediately approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Ishrak, despite a packed schedule, specifically wanted to speak at CWRU to showcase his company’s technology with hopes of inspiring future engineers to pursue a career with Medtronic. More importantly, though, he wanted to showcase the ways which Medtronic is leveraging expertise from all fields to create new therapies to benefit of patients around the world.