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Spoiler alert: West Michigan boasts its own Gray's anatomy

Steve Homich, left, Chris Putt, right.

Steve Homich

Minus McDreamy and staged-set hospital drama, West Michigan has its very own Gray's anatomy in a new med-tech startup that creates surgical trainers. John Rumery reports on how Grays Bones and Joint Models is revolutionizing the industry.
If you were in a coffee shop and eavesdropping on a conversation between Steve Homich and Chris Putt, you might be thinking it’s time to slowly get up, pay your bill and leave.

“The problem with cadavers is that you never know what you are getting.“

“You can’t do that with a cadaver…”

However, there's no cause for alarm. The conversation is only about business between two successful entrepreneurs discussing their latest venture.

Grays Bones and Joint Models is a new medical tech venture launched by Homich and Putt, two entrepreneurs from Greenville, MI. The firm is one of several startups currently located in the life sciences and emerging technologies business incubator, GR Current.

Grays Bones and Joint Models makes hyper-realistic soft tissue surgical trainers and bones used for training surgeons and their teams. Bones, legs, knees, spines, vertebrae: you name it, they make it.

Or as Putt says, We can make trainers for anything that can be done to your body. We can make a trainer for an eyeball.”
Their products allow medical device companies and surgeons to better train their teams on a wide variety of surgical procedures and to use surgical equipment anywhere and anytime in the world.

Without the use of Homich’s and Putt’s trainers, this type of instruction would typically be done on cadavers, a practice that has many practical limitations. Not only are cadavers expensive, but it is also challenging and costly to schedule the use of a licensed facility. In addition, there's a decreasing supply of medical cadavers as more people opt for cremation, as well as cultural taboos around the use of cadavers. Using trainers instead solves several of these logistical problems.

Putting aside the practical limitations, perhaps the biggest benefit of using Grays Bones life-like trainers is that the instructional experience is superior. Putt explains.

“The reason this is a better alternative is that we have an engineered system," says Putt. "We can take [the surgeon's] desire, what they need to see pathologically in their trainer and bone structure and make it. You want a 30 percent blockage? I will give you a 30 percent blockage. If you want to see flow through the artery, we will show you flow through the artery. You can’t do that with a cadaver. There is no one producing bones as realistically as we do anywhere in the world that we can find.“

The idea to start making artificial body parts reflects the duo’s mission statement of making the world a better place. Homich says this venture is very personal. “My inspiration for Grays Bone was, and is, my experience from working with simulated surgical trainers and the impact that they had on surgeon education and patient care improvement. I have seen some wonderful and magical procedures performed on live people knowing that the surgeon was also trained on a simulated surgical trainer that I had something to do with,” Homich says.

The business model is pretty straightforward. “The medical device companies spend million of dollars training surgeons and staffs on their technology, the surgical procedures, and how to handle the implants. Companies selling the hardware are using our products to sell to doctors, train doctors, and help them better understand how to use their hardware,“ says Homich.

The trainers are currently made in Hungary, the result of a long-standing friendship and business relationship between Homich and Laszlo Jaloveczki, a resident of Budapest, Hungary. Sales, design and assembly are done in the United States with a plan to open up a full production facility sometime in 2014 in West Michigan. Homich says that once this facility is open, their firm will be adding new jobs: “Our forecast is fifteen jobs, a mix of talent -- engineering, design, new product development, manufacturing and assembly.”  

Prices for the trainers can range from $50 to $1,500 depending on the complexity of the simulated surgical soft tissue trainer. “There are a lot of people who can make fake body parts but not anyone who can do it as precise and anatomically correct as we do,” says Homich.

From the perspective of Jeff Royce, executive director of GR Current, the type of work being done by Homich and Putt is a perfect example of how a business incubator should work. Royce says Homich and Putt are seasoned professionals with a good idea in a high-growth industry and just needed a place and some professional connections to move their idea forward.

Homich readily agrees. “One strength of GR Current is the tangible stuff: the office space, their work on grants. The other strength is the intangibles: all the people we are being introduced to, elbow rubbing opportunities and the GVSU connection. Hats off to those guys and the can-do attitude of the whole group. It is quite a powerful organization. When we bring a client into the GR Current facility it has a positive impact on our credibility," Homich says. GR Current is in the process of moving to a new facility downtown Grand Rapids.

Besides Grays Bones, Homich and Putt are also partners in Advanced Orthopaedic Solutions, another business that they are ramping up through GR Current. 

John Rumery is the jobs and innovation editor at Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

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