PhD candidate Justin Wee’s SensOR startup wins $10,000 Lacavera Prize

Approximately two-thirds of modern general surgeries use minimally invasive techniques, with smaller incisions and longer instruments, to reduce trauma and accelerate healing time. But remotely operated or robotic tools make it harder for a surgeon to feel the response of the tissues they are operating on. This can increase the chance of causing additional injury: up to 12 per cent of medical errors are caused by inappropriate application of force during surgery.

Justin Wee, a PhD candidate in the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), and his colleagues devised a solution. They developed a thin film that easily wraps around any surgical instrument and translates physical force into electrical signals. The force-feedback data is wirelessly transmitted to a receiver and a visual display, making it easy to see how much force is being applied. These visual cues can be integrated into the monitors that surgeons already use to see inside the body.

Their patent-pending product led to the creation of SensOR, a startup company that was among 14 teams to pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges at Demo Day, a Dragons’ Den-style event hosted annually by U of T Engineering’s accelerator, The Entrepreneurship Hatchery. SensOR was one of three teams that won a share of $32,500 in seed funding, donated primarily by alumnus Anthony Lacavera (CompE 9T7).

Wee’s co-founding partner and SensOR CEO Robert Brooks (MIE PhD 1T5) credits the team’s Hatchery mentors with helping them to articulate their vision. “We had this wonderful technology, and we knew exactly what we were doing, but the only people who understood it were surgeons,” he says. “Our mentors were absolutely instrumental in helping us nail down exactly what our value proposition was so that we could connect with investors.”

SensOR’s initial market will be surgical training programs. Although some force-feedback simulation systems exist already, SensOR is the only one that follows student all the way from simulation into surgery and allows students to train using the same tools they will be using in practice. Once the product is approved by Health Canada, the team hopes to start using it in real surgeries. “The ultimate goal is to enable new surgical procedures that are not possible today,” says Brooks.

SensOR also received support from U of T’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i). Read a Q&A about SensOR on the Faculty of Medicine website.

With files from Tyler Irving, Engineering Strategic Communications