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Dissecting the Business of Surgical Training with OEI

April 2013

amputationThe website of Operative Experience, Inc. (OEI) is not for the faint of heart. Their home page features full-color rotating images that range from a blood-spattered, gloved “thumbs up” to close-ups of various medical procedures. While undeniably graphic, the photo selection vividly showcases the work of this North East, Md.-based company: simulation-based training systems for surgery and emergency medical services.

Since 2008, OEI has been on a mission to revolutionize surgical and pre-hospital training. According to the company’s website, by using medical simulators with unprecedented anatomical and surgical fidelity within a rigorous experiential instructional paradigm, OEI can reduce training costs while increasing training effectiveness and retention. In a recent interview, Bobby Buckman III, OEI’s vice president of sales and marketing, shared some background on this unique business model, what it took to get it off the ground and plans for the future.


BabydeliveryA Better Way

After serving as a combat trauma surgeon with the Army Reserves, teaching surgery at Temple University School of Medicine and spending 15 years as director of the busiest trauma center in Philadelphia, OEI founder Dr. Robert Buckman, Jr., knew there had to be a better way to train would-be medical professionals than with costly cadavers and virtual reality simulators or socially-objectionable live tissue training.

Building on his years of teaching and research, including 10 years as editor-in-chief of “Trauma Quarterly,” Buckman, Jr., turned his attention to researching materials that would react surgically like human tissue. In collaboration with materials expert Jeffrey Ellis, a master craftsman and former special effects developer for film and stage, Buckman, Jr., was able to develop the world’s first physical simulators that would allow for “hands-in-the-body”operations using standard surgical instruments. Fifteen patents later, OEI is a leader in the field and the supplier of choice for the U.S. Army, who helped fund product development.

Getting from There to Here via Google

Buckman III says the choice to focus on serving the warfighter with the new simulators was a natural one considering his family’s history of service. Buckman, Jr., spent more than a decade in the medical corps of the U.S. Army Reserve, including a stint at the 300th Field Hospital in Saudi Arabia during operation Desert Storm. Buckman III’s brother also served in the Army.

And according to Buckman III, the journey from the product breakthrough to market was not as challenging as one might think. “Dad had an idea and the Army had a need, so they paid for the research,” Buckman III explains.

Perhaps not surprisingly in today’s marketplace, it all started with a Google search. “My father ran a Google search to find out who was the No. 1 professional in the market.” It turned out the contact – Dr. Mark Bowyer – worked in Washington, D.C., at Uniform Services University, so Buckman, Jr., got in his car and drove down to see him. Bowyer immediately recognized the potential of Buckman, Jr.’s work and referred him to another contact at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) located at Fort Detrick, Md., which ultimately led to a series of grants through their Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) program totaling $3 million.

OEI Today

csectionToday, OEI offers training in three key areas: emergency cranial surgery, emergency obstetrics and combat casualty care from point of injury (POI) care through surgical care. While training can be customized to meet the needs of a specific group, the suggested process is the same for each: video instruction followed by repetitive practice on the simulator.

Depending on the procedure, the simulator could be a full body mannequin or just a leg or head. The most common procedure in current military operations is a fasciotomy, in which the fascia, or connective tissue in the leg, is cut to relieve tension or pressure, so the simulator for this limb-saving procedure was one of the first products they made.

In addition to surgical procedures, medical device manufacturers and testing agencies can use the simulators to test new products, such as those used in suturing in stapling.

The OEI of Tomorrow

Currently, OEI works primarily with the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), a USAMRMC office that performs medical reconnaissance and special operations to address critical gaps that are underrepresented in DoD medical research programs.

In addition to its military work, OEI is also focusing on global maternal health with C-CeliaTM, its award winning c-section simulator developed in part through support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. OEI was selected as one of 19 awardees from a pool of more than 600 applicants in the global contest “Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development,” and projects that this new technology has the potential to save 60,000 lives per year in Africa alone.

And Buckman III says OEI’s technologies are easily adaptable to civilian needs, with plans already underway to expand into civilian markets including universities. In fact, Buckman III and his father recently returned from a conference in Arizona for the Association of Program Directors for Gynecology where their products were well received and a number of proposals are pending.

Finally, OEI is supporting a number of validation studies through independent scientific studies to verify and validate its training efficacy, with three studies currently in progress or pending. Buckman III explains the significance of these studies by saying, “The Defense Department has implemented a five-year ban on using animals for trauma training, so it’s particularly important to validate this as an alternative to live tissue training.”

Marketing & Advice

In terms of marketing, Buckman III says the nature of the work means they are marketing to a small pool of people who are “not terribly difficult to get to.” Even with medical institutions, he points out, “There are very few people who can actually write a check for our services.” He says OEI is able to reach its target audience primarily through attending key trade shows and sending press releases to very targeted publications such as surgical military journals.

In terms of words of wisdom for fellow business owners looking to break into doing business with the federal government, Buckman III says, “Everything is on [the website] FedBizOpps – Everything they buy or solicit has to be on Internet for anyone to compete.” And he says that small business set-asides really do work. “You have to fill out a lot of paperwork, but it’s worth it,” he notes.

At the end of the day, Buckman III says it’s great to do something with a real purpose. “We feel like we are aiding in training that helps the warfighter, and that’s our goal: improving training and trying to save lives.” I95

Photos are simulations of actual life-saving procedures. From the top: amputation detail; delivery of baby by C-section; and uterine artery repair.