Science and Technology

Engineering students gain hands-on experience developing health technology

Collaboration with Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital pays students to work with startup companies on innovative devices.

  • November 23, 2022
  • By Geoff McMaster

Christian Bagg was an extreme athlete who lived to snowboard, climb and cycle.

It all came to a jarring halt 26 years ago when he broke his back snowboarding and was paralyzed from the waist down.

With a background in machining, however, he quickly began to design adaptive off-road bikes so that anyone like him with spinal cord injury could get back outside and on the trails.

In 2018, Bagg launched a company called Bowhead, which he and a business partner ran out of his basement. But while the off-road bike was a great innovation, they needed help bringing it to market.

That’s when Bagg found out about a University of Alberta engineering co-op program run in partnership with Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital

The Glenrose Rehab Research Innovation and Technology (GRRIT) Hub pays wages for engineering students to work at small, emerging health-technology companies as well as at health-care facilities —which helps companies and clinicians develop innovations that will ultimately provide vital support to patients and also supports economic success for the industries.

Tatiana Place was the first student from the co-op program to join Bowhead. She was in the last stages of her degree in mechanical and biomedical engineering and needed one more co-op placement before graduating.

“I found out that I’d be moving to Calgary and working in (Christian’s) basement,” she says. “I did anything and everything. I built the bikes, learned a bit of welding, did some 3D printing of parts for the bikes and ordered from different suppliers.”

Place says the best part for her was witnessing how dramatically the bikes changed the lives of paraplegic clients who were once again mobile. 

She liked her placement so much she returned to the company as production manager after graduating and has helped bring more co-op students on board. Bowhead now has a large office space, which houses a full staff of engineers, content creators and athletes who’ve experienced injuries.

Tatiana PlaceTatiana Place, the first student from the co-op program to join Bowhead and now the company's production manager, works on an adaptive off-road bike. (Photo: Supplied) 

Bowhead is just one of many small Alberta biomedical companies that have benefited from the co-op program, says the initiative’s founder, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering Gary Faulkner.

Launched 13 years ago when Faulkner was hired as director of research and innovation at the Glenrose, the program raises external funding — currently about half a million dollars a year — to provide engineering students to small companies ready to design technology that helps patients rehabilitate from injury.

Much of that support has come from the Faculty of Engineering, as well as economic development agencies such as Alberta Innovates and Prairies Economic Development Canada.

About 60 students have been placed so far, most from the biomedical stream but also some from mechanical, civil, electrical and materials engineering.

“I would meet with patients and occupational and physical therapists to identify challenges the patient faced on a daily basis,” says biomedical engineering student Andrew Archibald, who completed a placement last year.

“We would then modify an existing product or develop a completely new device to meet the needs of the patient. It really helped develop my creativity and forced me to think outside the box.”

The experience shifted Archibald’s focus to a more patient-centred career, he says. He is now studying medicine at the U of A and is “excited to serve the community in a more personal way.”

Faulkner says the GRRIT initiative has no interest in the intellectual property for any technology it develops. “We just want to help develop a cluster of health industries that will help patients, while introducing students to ideas of entrepreneurship at an early stage.”

He points to an exercise device for the hands, arms and wrists as another successful product developed through the program. The idea came from therapists at the Glenrose and was passed on to Edmonton’s Karma Machining and Manufacturing Services — an oil and gas machine company looking to diversify. The device was designed by a group of fourth-year U of A mechanical engineering students, who refined it with help from students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, says Faulkner.

Another innovation hatched by physiotherapists is a computer game that helps people with memory loss navigate a trip to the grocery store. The game’s avatar gives the player a budget for an evening meal and has them purchase the necessary ingredients without overspending.

“Our therapists thought this would help people starting to have difficulty with activities of daily living,” says Faulkner.

It’s win-win for everyone involved, he says. “Given the nature of the projects we work on, we tend to get the very best students.”

And the students love the hands-on experience. “They really enjoy working directly with occupational and physiotherapists,” Faulkner notes. “In many cases it changes their lives.”

“I do love it,” says Place, three years after first working with Bowhead.

“With a small company, it’s just incredible. I don’t know how I could have found a more perfect job.”