Surgeon invents ‘vending machine’ to track tools in operating rooms

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Maria Iliakova, a surgeon who formerly worked at Mercy Iowa City, has invented a “vending machine” to keep track of surgical tools in operating rooms, decreasing the delays that sometimes occur when the right instruments aren’t immediately available to surgeons. (Submitted)

Maria Iliakova, a surgeon who formerly worked at Mercy Iowa City, has invented a “vending machine” to keep track of surgical tools in operating rooms, decreasing the delays that sometimes occur when the right instruments aren’t immediately available to surgeons. (Submitted)

IOWA CITY — When she had an idea to create a tool to track equipment in hospital operating rooms, bariatric surgeon Maria Iliakova traded her surgery tools for pen and paper and signed up for the University of Iowa’s Venture School.

Iliakova is the founder of Innovation Surgical, a startup where she is developing a “vending machine” system — a robot of sorts — to track surgical tools in operating rooms. The invention aims to decrease the delays that sometimes occur when the right instruments aren’t immediately available to surgeons.

Iliakova, from Kansas City, Mo., graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City for undergrad and medical school. She came to Iowa City in August 2022 to work as a robotic surgeon at Mercy Iowa City, now the UI Health Care Downtown Campus.

She came up with the idea for her invention last April and had been planning to leave the hospital to pursue her idea when the news of Mercy’s bankruptcy first broke.

That development, she said, “lit a fire” under her and caused her to speed up her plans to become an entrepreneur.

When tools cause delays

Surgeons use a standardized set of tools in an operating room, Iliakova said. The problem is that the system used to track the tools isn’t perfect. No bar codes — or anything else — are available to track tools.

The tracking and location of tools is now done manually, which takes time and causes delays, she said, comparing the situation to UPS not tracking its delivery trucks.

“Because we quite literally do not know where our equipment is, it’s essentially impossible for us to have it at the right place at the right time,” Iliakova said.

To solve the problem, she came up with the idea for a robotic vending machine that tracks surgical tools in and out of the operating room. It will track the delivery, counting, sorting and organization of the tools.

She said vending machines already exist in operating rooms for medications, allowing for easy tracking.

Scott Swenson instructs students during a March 19 University of Iowa Venture School class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. Maria Iliakova, a surgeon who formerly worked at Mercy Iowa City, attended the seven-week course to learn more about developing a business to market her surgical tool tracking invention. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Scott Swenson instructs students during a March 19 University of Iowa Venture School class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. Maria Iliakova, a surgeon who formerly worked at Mercy Iowa City, attended the seven-week course to learn more about developing a business to market her surgical tool tracking invention. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Her idea, she said, should help hospitals avoid delays in an operating room, especially if the surgeries are scheduled weeks in advance.

She said she led a team to discover the cause of delays in ORs. In 50 percent of the cases, misplaced or missing surgical tools were to blame.

That number, she said, is consistent nationally and globally because the tracking of surgical tools is not standardized or automated.

“I started thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, we already have robots in the OR, we already have vending machines in the OR and elsewhere around the hospital. Why don’t I create something? This can’t be that hard,’ ” Iliakova said.

Getting to that point, however, wasn’t a linear progression, she said.

Customer discovery

Iliakova said she initially envisioned a much larger system to track surgical tools, but that idea would have been difficult to create and implement.

She began asking people what they wanted and what they thought. The feedback was that some people had used a similar tool in the past that had proved unreliable, or it did too much. Others had never seen anything like what Iliakova envisioned.

Another common comment was people wanted one thing that did one thing really well, instead of a larger thing that sought to do everything.

It was during this process of interviewing people — called customer discovery — that she realized she should focus on creating something that did one thing and did it well.

She started sketching ideas in her notebook and asking around about how to file patents and create a business. She consulted her mother, a lawyer in Kansas City, who put her in touch with a law firm there.

That firm then connected her with a design firm in the Iowa City area. Once that connection was made, she said, it was off to the races.

She was working with that firm but then switched to Protostudios, a University of Iowa rapid-prototype studio that uses 3D printing to make prototypes.

That prototype is in progress and, if all goes well, Iliakova plans to partner with local hospitals in the fall to test her invention.

She incorporated Innovation Surgical in September and filed a provisional patent in November.

UI Venture School

University of Iowa Venture School student Xiaowen Guo speaks about her startup idea March 19 during a class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

University of Iowa Venture School student Xiaowen Guo speaks about her startup idea March 19 during a class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

As Iliakova was working on her idea, she began to have questions about how to start a company, commercialize a product, create a prototype and so on.

She met with Paul Heath, regional director of the UI Small Business Development Center, who recommended she sign up for the seven-week UI Venture School program.

Scott Swenson, an instructor with the UI Venture School, said the program takes people through a process that validates their idea — or not — and creates a business model for it.

“The idea is that, before you go out there and start building something, you want to have all the input of the market and understand what the customers are thinking about your idea — before you go through the time and the expense of building out the product or the idea,” Swenson said.

University of Iowa Venture School students Michael Flynn and Courtney McClellan speak about their startup concept during a March 19 class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. The seven-week program helps budding entrepreneurs decide if their idea is viable. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

University of Iowa Venture School students Michael Flynn and Courtney McClellan speak about their startup concept during a March 19 class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. The seven-week program helps budding entrepreneurs decide if their idea is viable. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

By the end of Venture School, most people should know if their startup idea is a go or not.

A key part of the program is customer discovery. Other course work includes creating a business model.

Swenson said he’s been impressed with Iliakova’s work and her extensive customer discovery. In general, he said, her work on the technical side of things — how her invention would work and how it would impact the target problem — has been great.

“Her eyes were wide open on the business part of it,“ Swenson said. “She came in as a great student … and really just absorbed all the input that all of the mentors and instructors had to offer.”

University of Iowa Venture School student Xiaowen Guo speaks about her startup concept during a March 19 class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

University of Iowa Venture School student Xiaowen Guo speaks about her startup concept during a March 19 class at the BioVentures Center in Coralville. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Swenson also said he’s seen outside interest in what Iliakova is developing.

Iliakova said she learned a lot in the Venture School program and also established industry connections, such as with Protostudios.

She put Swenson on her advisory board for Innovation Surgical.

Iliakova said she still has a lot of work to do on her invention and that she’s kept her day job as a traveling surgeon, contracting with regional hospitals.

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