August 2015

Today we welcome Douglas Nelson, Jr. to the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute.

Doug is a doctoral candidate with the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Bioengineering. He is a Pitt graduate with a dual degree in applied mathematics and bioengineering.


Doug will complete his Ph.D. program and The Wallace H. Coulter Translational Research Partners II Grant Program in December. This program is led and administered by the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Pitt’s Innovation Institute.

Doug has spent the past several years focused on developing a medical simulation training product – BodyExplorer – to improve health-science education and is preparing to take the innovation to market. As an Entrepreneur in Residence with the Innovation Institute, I have had

the opportunity to work closely with Doug on the commercialization proces

s for BodyExplorer. For those who don’t know about the Innovation Institute, it i

s the University’s hub for activities that promote and foster innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialization on campus. An important goal of the Institute is to also foster this culture among faculty, staff, and students through education, collaboration, communication, and economic development.

Based on this, I believe Doug’s experience of translating his technology research to a viable product ready for market availability is a great story to share which demonstrates moving a technology developed on Pitt’s campus towards the market place.  I hope this

interview with Doug might inspire other researchers to imagine possibilities for their discoveries beyond the lab.


What has motivated you to pursue your innovation?

After my undergraduate senior design project at Pitt with Dr. Samosky, his passion for improving patient safety and healthcare simulation, and my personal interest in educational technologies, led me to continue working with Dr. Samosky as I pursued my PhD in Bioengineering. Dr. Samosky’s first-hand experience observing medical errors initially inspired my work in the field. During my third year of grad school, a personal chord was stuck when I, too, witnessed a family member injured by accident in a hospital. Accidents are bound to happen in medicine, just like any other field. Simulation training aims to minimize the occurrence of these errors and has proven successful across numerous medical fields; however, access to this training is limited because of the immense resources necessary to utilize the currently available simulators.

body explorer

How is your simulator different than what is available today?

Our simulator, BodyExplorer, is a next-generation simulator to enhance training while reducing the resources necessary to do simulation. It provides students the opportunity to learn on-demand, 24/7, and receive guided feedback on their performance—even when an instructor isn’t available.

BodyExplorer uses a collection of sensors that we engineered to measure user’s interactions while they practice treating a plastic training mannequin. We project images onto the training mannequin  – basically augmented reality – to provide the user with a view of their simulated patient’s internal anatomy and physiology. With proprietary algorithms, we provide individualized feedback to the user based upon their performance. See a live demo here.

What made you interested in pursuing commercialization for BodyExplorer?

I’ve been working on BodyExplorer since its beginnings. I’m passionate about it getting out into the hands of those in society who can really make a difference with it and I think the timing is right–both personally and within the field. Simulation in healthcare is past the acceptance phase and stakeholders are eager for better solutions to meet their needs. We are inspired to make simulation training ubiquitous across all levels of health-science education so that every healthcare provider or provider-in-training can experience the benefits of simulation training.

The Coulter program has supported our efforts by allowing us to focus on translation from a research prototype towards a commercially viable product–an opportunity with flexibility not typically available through traditional academic grant mechanisms.

Describe the Coulter Experience from your perspective.

Before we received a Coulter grant, we heard that the amount of work required was large compared to the funds received. After over a year with the Coulter Program, I would agree with the sentiments that were previously shared with us.

However, I would also mention that with the work came tremendous value added to the potential for commercialization of our innovation.  One source of this value was from Coulter business advising, mainly through the Innovation Institute’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, makes the value of the award much more than just $100,000.

Did your innovation evolve as a result of participating in the Coulter Program?

Yes, and the flexibility on the use of funds has enabled us to adjust our budget as needed.

In what ways?

While BodyExplorer’s general theme did not change, our deployment strategy for BodyExplorer has certainly evolved. Through Coulter mentorship, continued customer discovery, and development of a business strategy, our plans around commercialization evolved over the course of the Program.

Instead of pursuing a licensing pathway, we are now pursuing a startup. Through Coulter’s business mentorship, we have developed a step-wise, go-to-market strategy in order to expedite the path to revenue.

How did you and your team utilize the $100,000 Coulter grant?

A large part of the grant was used for personnel. We supported one PhD student, a half-time research staff member, and two full-time summer interns who have continued to work during this semester.

In addition to personnel, the funds were used to further advance product development. We were able to triplicate our system prototype and support alpha testing at two locations, as well as contract with a digital graphic artist and animator to improve our images of anatomy and physiology.

Without the Coulter grant, we would not have been able to advance BodyExplorer as much as we have over the last year.

What recommendations do you have for researchers considering applying to Coulter this month?

You do not have to be an expert in developing a business strategy to be successful in the Coulter Program. However, you do have to be committed to participating in the mentorship and curriculum provided through it in order for the experience to be successful for you and your team.

What question should I have asked you?

You should have asked if I had any advice for those who succeed at receiving a Coulter Award.

My advice is to be open-minded about changing paths and/or milestones as you progress through the Coulter Program. Your initial vision for how your innovation can be commercialized will certainly evolve as you progress through the Program. Do not be stubborn or reluctant to explore other paths. Evaluate each path as rigorously as you would perform your benchtop research and choose the path, or paths, that are supported by the data. Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of customer discovery as part of your commercialization research plan and data analysis. It is perhaps the cheapest research to do and can drastically save on redesigns down the road.

If you have specific questions for Doug regarding his experience, you can contact him directly at

If you have an innovation and would like further explore commercial opportunities, here are two options:

1. Apply to the Pitt Venture’s First Gear program (accepting applications now for November cohort)

2. Apply to the Wallace H. Coulter Translational Research Partners II Grant Program. A one-page Letter of Intent is due by October 19, 2015.