Brain tumor surgery requires extreme precision. Every small wrong movement of the surgeon can mean additional damage to the patient's brain. Until now, surgeons have been left alone to deal with this problem; they often have to stand bent over the patient for hours, getting muscle or back problems themselves. Sabrina Hellstern and Claudia Sodha want to change that.
The two founders of Hellstern Medical have worked with doctors and engineers to develop the world's first sensor-controlled exoskeleton to assist surgeons during surgery.
Doctors put on an ergonomic carrying system, which is attached to a metal frame, like a backpack. The frame supports the bent upper body, relieving the strain on the back. Thanks to sophisticated sensor technology and software, the system follows the surgeon into any desired position. At the same time, they have their hands free for the operation.
Operations that are life-threatening for patients often last many hours. Surgeons are exhausted and work in twisted forced postures. This can lead to musculoskeletal disorders that impair performance in the long term. "By law, surgeons are entitled to an ergonomic workplace," says Sabrina Hellstern. "But the reality is different."
Many doctors take painkillers themselves to get through the day-to-day operations. Hellstern even talks about 40 percent of all operating surgeons. Together with Claudia Sodha, she has developed a different solution: the exoskeleton. Financially, the founders have already had initial success; the device is used at the University Hospital in Tübingen, for example. But the investment is still high. The founders are now strongly expanding their sales activities.
"We have already successfully completed the first heart operation," says Hellstern. She worked for years in medical technology sales, maintains good contacts in the clinics and knows the needs on the ground. "Doctors have asked us if something like this can't be developed," Hellstern says. One of them is the head of pediatric neurosurgery in Tübingen, Martin Schuhmann. He counts himself among the pain-stricken victims of working conditions and is part of Hellstern's founding team of six people.
Medical technology for the operating room: exoskeleton is patented worldwide
Relieving doctors like Schuhmann during operations has been overdue for decades, says Hellstern. That's why the prototype called "Noac" was developed all the more quickly: According to the founders, the device was developed in just 15 months together with two engineers and two surgeons. It has since been patented worldwide and certified as a medical device.
Some of Noac's components were created at the mechanical engineering company Brecht in the small Wannweiler industrial park between Reutlingen and Tübingen. The carrying system was developed by backpack specialist Deuter. "The name is an abbreviation for 'no ache' - no pain," explains founder Hellstern.
When the 40-year-old talks about working conditions in the operating room, she comes across as if she were speaking from her own experience as a doctor. To start the project four years ago, the mother of two even sold the family car and took out a mortgage on her house.
"This step was never up for discussion for me," she explains. "When I look back at 80 years old, this personal risk will look very small compared to having solved a huge problem and saved lives in the process."
Hellstern Medical: Next financing round underway
Her co-founder Claudia Sodha is responsible for finances as CFO. The 59-year-old is an engineer and experienced management consultant. 2021 Hellstern Medical has completed seed financing in the amount of 3.3 million euros.
The two entrepreneurs have also already won the Baden-Württemberg Founders' Prize in 2019. Now the next round of financing is underway for a further three million euros. The money is needed to build up sales in Germany and abroad.
Currently, Hellstern and Sodha are in another clinic almost every day to let surgeons try out their first production-ready device. That's because demand has to come from the operating room. Clinics only order such new devices when pressured by their doctors. "There are already numerous interested parties," assures Hellstern.
At the University Hospital in Tübingen, for example, Noac is already being used. Volker Steger, a specialist in cardiac surgery and head of thoracic surgery in Tübingen, says: "I've already had to have an intervertebral disc removed. A support system would not only help me, but would also be a competitive advantage for the hospital." His colleagues Silvio Nadalin, head of the transplant center, or Sara Y. Brucker, Medical Director in the Department of Women's Health, are already actively using the exoskeleton in the operating room.
How big a success it will be on the market remains to be seen. After all, there must be enough long operations to make the purchase worthwhile for a clinic. The exoskeleton is not cheap. The devices will cost between 80,000 and 100,000 euros. To make the decision easier for clinic operators, they can also be leased for 1500 euros a month.
"We want to earn enough money with Noac to finance our next idea," says Sabrina Hellstern. And the founder has plenty of other ideas to make doctors' work easier: "I want to help cerebral autoregulation measurement achieve a breakthrough." That is, she wants to improve the monitoring and control of oxygen supply to the brain during surgery. "Our ultimate goal is to save human lives," she emphasizes.