LINCOLN, Maine — Somewhere within the confines of his Orono home are Todd O’Brien’s notebooks. Black-covered, about 150 lined pages apiece, the half-dozen notebooks are full of his sketches, ideas, proposals and unsolved problems dating back to 1992.
“Most physicians are trained to be problem solvers. I think this is just an extension of that,” the 45-year-old podiatrist said Saturday. “You see something that needs improvement, and you write it down. That’s the way my mind has run over the years. … I review them every once in a while, write things down, update them.”
O’Brien is a staff member at Health Access Network on West Broadway and medical staff president at Penobscot Valley Hospital of Lincoln. His notebook entries have helped him invent six surgical instruments since the 1990s, he said.
Two have been sold internationally. Three more are hitting the market shortly.
O’Brien said he hopes that one new device, called SutureSafe, will be enough of a hit to allow him someday to create his own medical manufacturing business. Licensed to Xodus Medical Inc. of Pennsylvania, which sells surgical products in the U.S. and 30 other countries, SutureSafe is a patent-pending “sharps injury” prevention device that is being marketed nationwide now.
Click here for a video demonstration of SutureSafe. Used by permission of Dr. O’Brien
“Most of my instruments are kind of niche products for podiatrists that build on other instruments already out there,” O’Brien said. “SutureSafe is different because there is nothing out there like that.”
Designed to reduce suture needle sticks during surgery that can cause infection, injury or surgical complications, the device is mounted on forceps, where it serves as a parking spot for the suture needle, O’Brien said. Currently when suturing, surgeons hold the suture needle or let it dangle, which often results in surgeons, nurses and patients getting inadvertently stuck.
An estimated 120,000 suture needle sticks occur in the U.S. annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health care-related needle sticks prompted Congress to pass the Needlestick Prevention Act in 2000 encouraging hospitals to implement safer instrument handling practices, O’Brien said.
“As a surgeon, you’re always worried about getting infected with HIV or hepatitis,” he said. “It’s not a big concern at a small hospital in Maine, but in a large hospital in an urban area, it’s definitely more of a concern.”
The Maine Technology Institute helped O’Brien invent and market SutureSafe by giving him three matching grants totaling $12,000 in 2005, he said. MTI is a private, nonprofit organization funded by the state Legislature to invest in promising technologies by funding research and development projects, according to its Web site, mainetechnology.org.
O’Brien’s home-based development company, O’Brien Medical LLC, has also licensed two other new surgical instruments to Innomed Inc. of Savannah, Ga., that will be on the market by January, O’Brien said.
His economic returns on his efforts have been slight, but that’s not the point.
“I actually get some enjoyment of this beyond the possibility of remuneration,” he said. “It’s like figuring out a new way to do something. I always liked research as far as experimentation goes.”
O’Brien’s creativity goes far beyond medicine, said his wife, Laurie.
“He is researching and writing a book on Julius Caesar as a model for entrepreneurship; he has fun designing T-shirts; he has invented toys and had one licensed and sold. It’s a family joke that you don’t let Dad get hold of your toy or it will be sacrificed for parts,” Laurie O’Brien said in an e-mail.
She credits her husband not so much for his creativity, but for pushing it far beyond the scribbled lines of his notebooks.
“The ideas come quite easily to him, but I think it’s pretty impressive that he’s educated himself on the patent process, manufacturing, grant process, and marketing,” she wrote. “That’s a lot to take on in his spare time, but he is very disciplined and focused.”
“I always have four or five projects going at the same time. I need to have these outside projects,” O’Brien said. “They keep things interesting.”