Some people put pigs’ feet in the microwave as a way of preparing dinner. Ruchi Patel does it to see how well her potentially game-changing invention is working.
When not being used for cuisine, pigs’ feet are valuable to medical students to practice suturing. Patel, a 2014 graduate of WW-P North and a junior chemical engineering student at Cooper Union in New York City, is not a medical student, but she is the co-inventor of QuickStitch, a disposable stapler-like suturing device that could legitimately revolutionize emergency, veterinary and third-world wound-treating situations. To see how well the device places and ties stitches, and how well those stitches hold up under stress, she throws sutured pigs’ feet in microwaves and freezers.
So far, she says, the sutures from her prototype QuickStitch are holding up as well as any that might be set by someone with the old-fashioned needle-and-thread-style approach — and without the potential for tearing and scarring that surgical staples have.
If the idea of a stitching device that can sew up sutures at near-stapler-like speeds sounds like a long overdue idea, the producers of CNBC’s “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor” program would agree with you. The show highlights people who come up with great ideas that accomplish the twin goals of any great new business — identify a real need and have a marketable product.
Patel and her business partner and Cooper Union classmate, Giovanni Sanchez, are part of the show’s second season. Their episode aired on Dec. 1 and resulted in a small infusion of funds from an investory to develop a working QuickStitch prototype, with the potential of a greater investment in the future.
“Since the episode, we’re significantly closer to a working prototype,” said Patel in a follow-up email after the show aired. They’ve begun working with a law firm to get a patent issued, and have started working with other students because they realized that they can’t handle everything on their own. Patel also said she and Sanchez are applying for student grants and entering competitions to help fund the further development of QuickStitch.
For Patel, the odyssey started in the summer of 2015, when she and Sanchez figured they’d give one of Cooper Union’s summer programs a try. The need was to develop a good idea by identifying a real need and come up with a tangible product. The result of their efforts was the “SutureSelf.” The clever name went well with the idea of having an emergency suturing device that could be carried in a pocket, but Patel and Sanchez realized there was a problem with the name during the filming of the show, when some experts pointed out there could be liability issues.
“We didn’t want to encourage people to suture themselves,” she says.
So the name was changed to QuickStitch and the focus turned to making the mechanism small enough to do what the device is designed for. The invention won the school’s best-in-competition award last summer, but was still pretty much just an idea, and not a device. So the pair created a startup company, Spario Inc., based in New York.
The focus has been to bring the idea to realization, and it’s had some common obstacles that businesses contend with. For one thing, they need money to miniaturize the small parts for the complex design. Fortunately, Patel has access to a mechanical engineering student in Sanchez, who designed manyh of the complex mechanisms that allow QuickStitch to set and tie a suture.
They ended up on CNBC after a casting agent read an article on the Cooper Union website about their first-place victory in the school contest. The agent contacted the school to get to us and after an interview, asked them to fill out some paperwork and submit an audition video.
She says the network liked the team dynamic between the pair, and the fact that “we are college students with a big idea but few resources.” They shot with CNBC over the course of about five months this year. She says she was surprised by how much she learned about putting the business together.
Patel and Sanchez are still looking to get those complex parts miniaturized. Making parts tinier means making them more delicate, and delicate is not a good asset for a device designed to save lives in a literal pinch.
Patel says so far the pair are funding the company with their own money. Fortunately, it’s not a bank-breaker budget. They spent about $400 on initial development and “a few hundred dollars since” getting the mechanism itself to work. The prototype is too big to be practical, but it does work well enough to keep stitches tight on microwaved and/or frozen pigs’ feet, she says.
By the way, that working prototype is the 11th incarnation of QuickStitch.
The initial marketing goal is to put a working QuickStitch into the hands of doctors in New York City and have the reviews drive the development. The fast-talking and unpretentious Patel betrays no sign of nerves about whether the plan will work. She’s not counting on success being a lock, but she’s already envisioning all the potential uses and outlets for QuickStitch.
The original destination was more of the general public than medical professionals — hence the original name of SutureSelf. “We made it so that the average person could use it,” Patel says. “But that’s not a profitable market.”
The duo quickly turned their attention to emergency rooms, where surgical procedures would be most likely to benefit. But ERs are just one outlet. What about first-responders to accidents? What about Doctors Without Borders? What about veterinarians? All those professionals have a real reason to have a device that sews up wounds in a hurry, because time in a medical emergency is absolutely the difference between saving a life and pulling the sheet over someone’s head.
Patel says that hand-suturing, per stitch, takes about 20 seconds. That would be less troublesome if there was only one stitch to worry about and if conditions were always optimal. But easy math tells you how long it would take, even if all goes smoothly, to hand-suture someone who needs, say, eight stitches. In that extra two-plus minutes, a patient, human or animal, can lose a lot of blood.
The time-and-smoothness continuum is especially problematic for veterinarians, Patel says. Wounded animals aren’t very cooperative. One veterinarian she spoke with told her she once took three hours to set three stitches on a horse. A horse’s thicker, tougher skin is hard to pinch together and staple. Even when it works, the staples often pop, leaving vets with only one real avenue: hand-suturing.
QuickStitch, Patel says, is designed to cut per-stitch time down to two-to-three seconds. It pinches the skin and sets and ties the suture in one swoop. That makes the idea of setting five or six stitches in the time it would take a skilled professional to make one by hand a true game changer.
Patel says she and Sanchez want to make a modified version of QuickStitch that handles thicker, veterinary-grade thread, but beyond the ER, the ambulance, and the vet’s office, she also sees a huge potential market in the military. She also believes the mechanism can be modified for basic embroidery for clothes.
As for Doctors without Borders, she hopes Spario can distribute a working device to the organization and into third-world areas where “self-help is the norm” when it comes to treating medical emergencies.
Patel’s vision is not a bad business plan for someone who had expected to study English at college because she wasn’t that great in math and science. She grew up in Plainsboro, the daughter of two parents from India. Her father, Raj, an accountant with his own firm, Smart Tax Solutions in East Windsor, encouraged her to apply for Cooper Union, which, Patel says, was the last school she applied to and the first she heard back from.
She had never studied for an engineering background and says she was a mediocre math student (which means Bs). Neither her father nor mother, Vaishali, a registered nurse at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.J., thought she would follow an engineering path, and generally had expected her to follow a career in writing and, probably, journalism. She loved being the editor of the school paper at North, but Patel calls her switch to chemical engineering “a better decision.”
Ironically, her mother’s medical background played no part in the development of the QuickStitch idea, she says. Patel informed her mother of the idea and then got some feedback, but she never sought her mother’s input when coming up with the device for the summer program.
Her parents, however, couldn’t be more pleased with her “better decision,” she says.
“The best thing for them,” she says, “is that I’m taking something I had, an idea, and making a business out of it. They used their brains to get here [to America], but they still have to work for other people.”