Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

The idea began with alligator clips and electrical tape. Now, Dr. Nick Von Bergen and his young company are out to improve care for the most vulnerable heart surgery patients.

“Did I see myself being an inventor or an entrepreneur? Not really,” says Nicholas Von Bergen, MD. “But I do see myself as being an innovator.”

Dr. Von Bergen is a pediatric cardiac electrophysiologist at American Family Children’s Hospital. His patients are occasionally “really little babies – maybe one week old – who have had major heart surgery.”

Monitoring his small, complex patients is critical: up to 60 percent of pediatric patients experience arrythmias – abnormal heart rhythms – following heart surgery.

Arrythmias can be potentially dangerous and prolong hospitalization, but diagnosing and treating them is challenging. Conventional methods lack either precision or timeliness. Bedside monitors display low-quality signals, while a high-quality ECG can take up to 20 minutes to set up.

Von Bergen, trained in Iowa, says the problem was still irking him after moving to Wisconsin a few years ago. Armed with an idea and a primitive prototype made of alligator clips, wires and electrical tape, he approached the UW Biomedical Engineering Department. There he connected with a team of students – including Matt Knoespel and Phil Terrien – with the skills to drive product design and development.

After graduating, Knoespel and Terrien turned down more traditional job offers to form Atrility Medical LLC, along with Von Bergen and Pete Lukszys of the UW School of Business.

Investors, including WARF and UW Health’s Isthmus Project, took a chance. They were right. Over four years the Atrility team has transformed Von Bergen’s vision into an innovative device currently in use at UW Health and around the nation.

Their device is called AtriAmp. It sits on the outside of the patient’s chest, receiving atrial signals from temporary pacing wires implanted during surgery. It connects to the bedside monitor to provide a streaming atrial electrogram in real time.

Von Bergen says the invention combines the benefits of the highest quality signal from the temporary pacing wires with the continuous monitoring of the bedside monitor.

Continuous. Immediate. Integrated. It all translates to better outcomes for patients.

The pediatric market is modest – just over 20,000 patients a year in the U.S. But Von Bergen sees the device, which received 510(k) clearance from the FDA last year, moving into the general heart surgery patient population on its merit.

“The reason is just the significant improvements in ease in evaluating heart rhythms,” he says. “In this potentially critically ill population, the AtriAmp really does a wonderful job of allowing us to know the patient’s heart rhythm, as opposed to saying: maybe we need a few more tests.”

Others have taken notice. This past summer, the company took the grand prize at the annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

“[Winning] was a nice testament to the amount of work that we’ve done over the last few years and the excitement that Wisconsin has for our product,” Von Bergen says.

“We really value strong partnerships with our inventor and faculty startups as they are great opportunities for technology advancement and new product creation, fostering the Wisconsin Idea and moving campus innovations out to a place where they can have impact,” says Jeanine Burmania, WARF Senior Director of IP & Licensing. “The Atrility team is a great partner and we are excited about the AtriAmp device and look forward to seeing the future innovations that they will develop.”

Now, as a Milwaukee-area contracted manufacturer begins production, Atrility looks ahead to sales and distribution strategy.

From the design to the production to the distribution, Von Bergen says: “The AtriAmp has been a Wisconsin product from start to finish. We’re proud of how Wisconsin we happen to be.”

“It’s great to see how far they’ve come since the team of student engineers and Dr. Von Bergen first submitted their disclosure to WARF,” says Stephanie Whitehorse, WARF Director of IP for Physical Sciences. “It’s gratifying to be part of the process, enabling early-stage innovation to make it to a product that enhances patient care, and this team has been so fun to work with.”