Engineering Surgical Instruments Just the Right Size

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Jenifer Kennedy is a co-founder and director of research at JustRight Surgical in North Boulder.
Seated at center in this photo, Kennedy works with other members of the company’s leadership team, from left to right, Jason Ott, Dale Schmaltz, Chris Schwalbach, and Patti Hoag.

A new wave of medical technologies is transforming surgery and Jenifer Kennedy (ChemEngr ’85) is at the forefront of these innovative surgical devices.

Kennedy is one of the co-founders and director of research at Boulder- based JustRight Surgical, a startup surgical products company developing precision surgical technologies for general surgery.
Kennedy is responsible for designing these new approaches.

The company’s first device, which launched in April 2013, seals vessels using radio frequency energy directed between two tiny pincers the size of tweezers.

Rather than tying off blood vessels with sutures or titanium clips, Kennedy’s device heats the tissue, effectively sealing blood flow without leaving foreign material behind in the body. She likens the process to that shown in TV commercials for sealing plastic food bags with heat.

The vessel-sealing device Kennedy developed at JustRight Surgical uses smaller instruments that allow access to surgical sites where conventionally sized devices have been limiting. Developed with input from surgeons, the sealing device is four times smaller than any sealer now available, is more maneuverable, and uses radio-frequency energy to seal blood vessels in microsurgical procedures and difficultto- access anatomy. The device can seal the passageway of a blood vessel with a diameter smaller than 5 millimeters.

“Making things smaller is always a challenge,” she says, “because you get to the point where the variances on the parts of this device can be plus or minus the thickness of a human hair.”

Other surgical devices will be launched by JustRight Surgical this summer. Kennedy can’t say much more than that about the new devices yet because of the proprietary nature of the products under development—but it’s clear she enjoys the work and collaboration with her colleagues.

“It’s hard work getting a product like this to market,” says Kennedy, who holds 10 patents. “After you get through the cumbersome regulatory process, overcoming hundreds of tiny technical hurdles, and understand the marketing challenges and strategy, then you’re finally ready to go out and sell it. That’s very exciting.”

After graduating from CU in 1985 with a degree in chemical engineering, Kennedy took a job as a chemical engineer in research and development at the aerospace company Morton-Thiokol, where she worked on developing rocket propellant. While she enjoyed the work, Kennedy realized that the defense industry was not where she wanted to focus her efforts.

Biomedical engineering was an emerging field at that time. The idea of combining engineering principles and design with medicine and biology to make healthcare products appealed to her, so Kennedy headed back to school. “I liked the idea of developing products to help people and improve their quality of life.”

Kennedy received a master’s degree in 1989 and a doctorate in 1991, both in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in cardiology at Yale University School of Medicine, she jump-started her career in biomedical research and development at SciMed Life Systems, where she worked on developing angioplasty balloon catheters.

She then went to Valleylab (now Covidien) in Boulder, which is where the idea of a vessel-sealing system actually originated. At Valleylab, Kennedy developed and managed the applied research group from 1993 to 1997. Her research resulted in the discovery that using controlled radio frequencies could seal blood vessels. This discovery led to the first vessel-sealing technology.

By observing a variety of surgeries—neurosurgery, general surgery, and gynecological surgery—Kennedy could see how surgical procedures could be improved with new or enhanced products.

“After observing surgeries for several weeks, we would go back to the lab and think up product concepts, do the research, and get technologies into development,” says Kennedy. “I try to bridge the gap between understanding surgical technique and technological capabilities.”

While at Valleylab, Kennedy was traveling 100,000 miles a year teaching surgeons how to use the company’s products. Her husband, Aaron, founder of Noodles & Company, was also on the road opening 20 to 30 restaurants a year. Their schedules became difficult to coordinate and, with two young children, Kennedy decided to stay at home while trying to fit in a little independent biomedical research consulting.

Ten years later Kennedy got a call from some former co-workers who wanted her to research new product concepts. JustRight Surgical was launched in 2009 with $6.5 million in capital.

“I had to develop a new and unique approach to existing technologies,” she says. “Surgeons had been asking for smaller, more precise little instruments since the mid-’90s, so we decided to be the people who make the instruments for them. We anticipate that our devices will have a lot of applications for a variety of surgeries.”

Believing in the importance of giving back to the engineering school, she serves on the Engineering Advisory Council as well as the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Advisory Board.

“The chemical engineering degree at CU was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life—really,” says Kennedy. “I’m very thankful for the quality and the rigor of the education I received there because it led to a career I absolutely love.”

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