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Matt Sorensen didn't choose the University of Utah's medical school because he's a local boy from Spanish Fork.

It wasn't the low tuition, about half that of private colleges and universities.

The draw, he says, was the university's reputation for building start-ups from scientific breakthroughs. And as he and other enterprising "first-years" are proving, the next big idea doesn't have to come from an established researcher or tenured professor.

Sorensen is president of the U.'s Bench to Bedside "B2B" Medical Device Competition, a responsibility that he squeezes into an already overbooked calendar of boot-camp-style courses and labs.

Started last year, the competition brings the fresh thinking of medical, engineering and business students to bear on obstacles faced by physicians in exam or operating rooms. The end goal: create a winning prototype for a medical device, a proof-of-concept to woo investors for possible commercialization.

For Sorensen, whose team of six submitted one of seven winning entries last year, the event "was an opportunity to merge two fields that I love." The 26-year-old got his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering.

It's also a great résumé-builder, he said. "When interviewing for residency programs, it will be great to be able to bring the prototype and say, 'This is what I did in my spare time.' "

The U. benefits, too, by sharing in the royalties from products brought to market and contributing to the state's economic growth — which could buy goodwill from lawmakers.

A pipeline of ideas. Utah's only medical school has courted controversy in years past with lawmakers insisting that coveted spots should go to sons and daughters of tax-paying residents.

It's a concern that Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, recently voiced at a public hearing, while discussing whether the state will give the U. money to restore spots lost two years ago to federal cuts. The university reduced its incoming class from 102 to 82 after Medicaid recalculated how much it would pay in annual reimbursements to teaching hospitals.

"We're spending a lot of money to educate these students, probably not enough," said Clark. "But we want to get these students to stay inside the state. How do we build this into this system?"

The lion's share of medical school slots — 75 percent, or 60 seats — go to native Utahns. Eight slots go to Idaho students under an interstate compact, and the remaining 14 students must have some connection to Utah.

According to the Utah Medical Education Council, 65 percent of Utah's doctors did some portion of their training here, whether in medical school or residency.

But that's not a true gauge of the state's return on investment, said Jay Argawal, a plastic surgeon and lead faculty adviser to the B2B program. "It's hard to look at it as a one-to-one relationship in terms of how much money you put in and how much you expect to get back."

Argawal said students "come with fresh eyeballs" and questions, which is important when you're trying to improve on existing technology.

"If you have a bunch of students producing innovations, we may see more investors set up shop here because of the potential pipeline of ideas. It can also mean manufacturing jobs and grant money," he said. "And it's a great recruiting tool for drawing the best and brightest here and convincing them to stay."

Solving problems. The competition is popular; a quarter of the first-year medical students participated in its inaugural year.

Students broke into 14 teams and brainstormed ideas ranging from an iPhone app to a headrest for surgeons who develop chronic conditions after performing long procedures, and a light source for dimly lit operating rooms in developing countries.

"There's no orphan technology looking for a purpose," said U. medical student and B2B founder Noah Minskoff in a video promoting the program. "Every innovation starts with a problem."

Sorensen's team created a new and improved tenaculum for use in gynecological procedures such as in-vitro fertilization.

To grip and stabilize the cervix, doctors currently use forceps, which can tear and puncture. Such complications can require stitches or cauterization and happen with about 42,757 patients a year, said Sorensen. "Anything we can do to make these procedures less painful is a good thing."

The solution: a suction bell that hugs the cervix, but is shaped like a doughnut to permit entry of instruments.

Sorensen's team is among four to file for provisional patents and work with the U.'s Technology Commercialization Office to bring their gadgets to market.

Such a process can take years, and Sorensen is loath to predict whether the device is a $2 million idea or $200 million idea.

"We know that the market on women's health is quite large, but we will only be able to acquire a certain percentage of that market," he said.

Making a difference. The university keeps a sizeable share of any profits, which Sorensen said is only fair considering it foots production costs. Each team is given $500 for materials, and the U. supplies lab space and faculty and legal advisers to ease students over regulatory pitfalls.

Sorensen said his team's adviser, obstetrician and gynecologist Marc Jackson, helped frame and hone the product from the perspective of an end-user.

"He helped us discuss potential expectations of clinicians. They don't want to use more hands than necessary, they don't want to lose the tactile feel of what their tools are doing, and [have certain] space and practical limitations," Sorensen said.

The university also brings credibility to the fundraising process. Medical devices aren't cheap to produce and test, said Sorensen.

The university recently opened a new master's program called Bioinnovate, a biomedical device design training program. Five medical students and two residents have taken a year off to pursue this degree.

Sorensen is interested in surgery and emergency medicine, but said he'd like "to keep a toe" in device-making.

He has recruited 18 teams for this year's competition and added more business students to the mix.

Stanford University has a similar program, but "as far as we know ours it the only one run by students," said Sorensen. "We all come into this field wanting to make things better. And this competition makes us believe that we can really make a difference."

Twitter: @kirstendstewart

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