Bordentown native and recent Yale University graduate Brandon Hudik has left college not just with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering but also with a prototype of a medical device, a patent application in place and a company, Acantha Medical, that he founded with Andres Ornelas-Vargas and Jason Chin.
By Michele Alperin
The three founders of Acantha Medical just learned that their device, which essentially makes catheter insertion easier, won them one of 25 grand prizes of $10,000 in the Infy Maker Awards, initiated in 2015 by Infosys Foundation USA. The awards this year focus on innovative solutions to challenges that are facing communities here and around the world in the areas of education, health, environmental sustainability and food.
Hudik, an All-American and All-American Academic soccer player and math whiz as a student at Bordentown Regional High School, spent the summer of 2015 in New Haven, working a few part-time jobs. One was helping a staff member of the Yale Child Study Center to create a robot that would interact with autistic children. “She needed me to design a face for this robot that wasn’t so creepy,” he says.
Ornelas-Vargas, a classmate in biomedical engineering, happened to see Hudik working late a couple of nights and invited him to help out with a project he was doing with Chin, a vascular surgery resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Already doing other small jobs, Hudik was happy to add another.
The problem Ornelas-Vargas wanted to solve involved a procedure called central line placement. Central lines are catheters that are a little thinner than a pencil and placed inside a person’s neck—in the subclavian, jugular or femoral vein—where they can deliver fluids quickly and in volume, deliver or draw blood or deliver long-term therapies. One example of its use might be for a person who, after a major car accident, needs blood quickly and in volume.
The Seldinger technique, currently the treatment of choice, involves sticking a large, sharp needle, into the vein, then threading a wire through the hollow space in the needle, called the lumen. The wire serves as a track for the catheter, or central line. As soon as the wire is in, the needle comes out. The wire is then threaded through the vein, showing the catheter where to go. Once the catheter is in, the wire is removed.
The problem with this procedure, Hudik explains, is that getting the wire into the vein is a two-handed process. Although doctors use ultrasound to see where the needle tip is, “as soon as they get the needle inside the vein and confirm with ultrasound that it is in the right spot, they put the ultrasound down because they have to use a second hand to grab the wire, feed it through the needle and pull out the wire once the catheter is in.”
At this point, Hudik says, “the needle is blindly in the patient,” and a sharp movement from the patient can lead to the needle puncturing an artery or falling out of the vein.
These mishaps can cause complications. Of an estimated five million central lines placed each year, the complication rate is 9 to 15 percent. Every year in the United States, approximately 200 patients die and 400,000 are injured due to mechanical and infectious complications associated with the procedure.
According to Ornelas-Vargas’s research, it is also estimated that American hospitals spend $2 billion yearly managing patients harmed by these complications. He also learned, in his analysis of the Seldinger technique, that most complications occur because physicians need to use both hands to introduce the guide wire for the central line.
The solution they envisioned, Hudik says, “was not insanely complicated—the idea we had was to make everything done with a single hand so the physician would never have to drop the ultrasound, to eliminate any blind steps so the physician can always see where the needle tip is.”
To get started on prototyping, the two young men had to learn 3-D modeling and 3-D printing. Hudik had a week’s experience under his belt from his work on designing a face for the robot, but he remembers spending the next couple of months watching many, many YouTube videos to learn more.
The prototyping process started with pictures on a chalkboard about what to try next, Hudik says, then “painstakingly figuring out how to do it in a 3-D model, then printing it out on a 3-D printer.”
“It took probably a year and a half of prototyping and iterating to get a design that not only created a one-handed process but also one that felt familiar and comfortable in a doctor’s hands, Hudik says. “Doctors spend years training on a certain procedure, and if it feels wildly different, they will be very reluctant to try it.” This meant keeping as many steps as possible the same as the existing treatment, but with the modification that the doctors do not have to drop the ultrasound.
To see how physicians would use the device, Hudik says, Chin “would constantly be able to recruit other residents and friends to try our prototypes.”
“They’d grab it backwards or completely mess up with it or say it was really crappy, and we’d always have to go back to the drawing boards,” Hudik says.
Finally they reached a prototype where Hudik heard doctors saying, “This is intuitive; I get it.”
“People were able to understand how to use it after being shown it once—but it didn’t happen overnight,” he says.
The prototype allows physicians to see the ultrasound at all times and decreases the number of steps required to insert the guide wire. Having accomplished the goal of making the process one-handed, they are working on other bells and whistles, like something to protect the needle and something so that the doctor’s thumb barely has to move.
Being at Yale, Hudik says, saved he and his two partners thousands of dollars as they developed their device, because they had free use of sophisticated 3-D printers as they improved their design and developed prototypes. They were also able to use expired medical equipment from Yale-New Haven Hospital, as well as simulators for testing their device in the hospital’s medical simulation lab.
The device is called the Ballistra Guidewire Advancer, because the Greek “ballistra” is the word for a giant crossbow used by ancient Greeks, which, Hudik says, is “what the original design looked like.”
But once they have a “high-fidelity prototype,” Hudik says, they will have reached the limits of their experience. They have applied for a patent, with the help of patent attorney Jeff Andrews, and have linked up with a business advisor, Nick Slavin.
Hudik grew up a few houses down from where his mother, Lisa, grew up and where his grandmother, Mae Hamilton, lives. His father, Jim, fixes fiber optic land and underground lines for Verizon, and his mother is a middle school teacher at Bordentown Regional Middle School.
Looking back on his path to engineering, Hudik says, “When I was little, I always liked Legos, math, and things with concrete answers. Math has always been my thing, so it was a natural progression to apply to college with engineering in mind.”
He also came naturally to soccer. His father played soccer and baseball at the University of Maryland and, Hudik says, “was always a big proponent of sports.” He and his alliterative siblings—his older sister Breanna, younger brother Brady, and younger sister Brielle—all played sports. The “Br,” he says, was coincidence with him and Breanna, but then his parents figured, “let’s go with this.”
Although Hudik started playing soccer in third or fourth grade, he says it didn’t get competitive until he joined a club team in middle school. “At that age I was so much taller than everyone else it worked to my advantage,” he says, adding that although he grew early, now he is not now hugely tall at 6’1”. He always played center back, and because of his size he says he was “able to be a bully in terms of winning physical battles, especially aerial balls, headers.” His high school team, he says, always had winning seasons and one year went three or four games into playoffs.
Hudik played saxophone from fourth grade through high school, where he was in the concert band. In the musical “Legally Blonde,” he played the UPS man and “met a lot of cool people.” But, he adds, “I was told in one of the scenes not to sing; I was miked, and they didn’t want my voice coming through.”
A member of the National Honor Society, he did his required 10 hours a month of community service and recalls calling out bingo numbers at a senior citizens residence and tutoring the girl down the block in math and science.
In college, he didn’t take soccer or the saxophone with him; instead, he says, he had more free time, and “I branched out and tried many new activities.” He joined the gospel choir, which he loved and stuck with for four years. He led two hiking trips for first-year students along the Appalachian Trail, once in Massachusetts and once in Vermont.
“It’s a random sort of group, but both times I lucked out and had a group of kids able to get along. To see them form these friendships before they get to college is really cool,” he says, noting how satisfying it is that many of these friendships continued throughout college. In fact, he met his best friend on one of these trips, and they are about to take a one-month hiking trip along Lake Superior.
A real highlight of his college years, also done with his best friend, was running a soup kitchen in New Haven, right off the Yale campus, staffed by student volunteers and a sexton of the church who handled security. They tried to make sure they had 13 students a day, but sometimes got 20, and they served 50 to 150 people a night, depending on the weather and how many food stamps people had left. He spent about seven hours a week working for the soup kitchen, getting food, supervising, and serving. He says they “tried to make it fun,” which included “playing a lot of Disney music.”
And he has now formed a small company with his classmates. Looking to the future, he wrote in an email, “To be honest, there’s almost no reason why this simple device that can save lives shouldn’t be in hospitals, and everyone involved with Acantha is on the same page with that. We’re gonna try to do whatever it takes to get the device into hospitals. If we reach that point, I think the money, time, thousands of hours of phone calls and moments of complete frustration will have been worth it. Heck, working with these guys, it’s already been worth it.”