By Steve Smith, University Communications
Here's the secret about Shane Farritor's "Isaac Newton" moments – you know, those sudden brainstorms when he suddenly comes up with the idea for high-tech devices that will solve problems both big and small.
They don't exist.
"It might be a little easier if they did," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln mechanical engineer said with a knowing laugh. "But I've learned from experience, really, that innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum."
Regardless, the Ravenna, Neb., native and UNL professor finds himself at the center of development of two groundbreaking technologies that will touch hundreds of thousands of lives and save businesses millions of dollars.
- He and partner Dmitry Oleynikov of the University of Nebraska Medical Center created tiny surgical robots that, among other things, decrease the size of patients' incisions – and therefore limit costly hospital stays. Within two years, doctors should be using the robots to perform surgeries for colon cancer and diverticular disease.
- He and fellow UNL engineer Richard Arnold have devised a method for measuring railroad track integrity. A computerized, laser-guided system mounted under a train car measures the vertical stiffness of the track below, and that, in turn, helps identify weak spots on the rails.
Both technologies will have far-reaching effects. The impetus behind Farritor's surgical robots is that they're much less invasive than traditional resection surgery, which often requires a 12-inch midline incision. That means a shorter recovery time for patients; some 200,000 a year could have hospital stays reduced from up to one week to as little as 48 hours.
Railroads, meanwhile, spend millions of dollars each year trying to maintain the quality of their track and looking for weak spots.
Such practical uses have helped Farritor and his business partners lift the inventions from his UNL lab into the private sector, where together they've attracted $3 million in private investments to date.
"Engineers are all about trying to affect change to make people's lives better," Farritor said. "But it takes more than a good idea or part of a good idea to make something happen.
"It takes a lot of making connections, a lot of working with others, a lot of answering questions you maybe didn't anticipate, to make it go."
Farritor, who returned to Nebraska in the late 1990s after stints with the Mars Rover project at MIT and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, began the projects with funding from places like NASA, the U.S. military and, in the case of the track sensor system, the Federal Railroad Administration.
But he hadn't thought much about making the leap into the business world until he spoke with Ken Jones, a 1968 alumnus of the engineering school. Jones is founder of Automated Call Processing Corp., Ditech Communications and Globe Wireless.
Jones, a member of the Engineering Dean's Advisory Board, asked Farritor if he'd considered taking his robots to market. "I had to be honest, the answer was no," Farritor said. "Over the next few years, he and others did a lot of hand-holding for us."
Meanwhile, Farritor was learning the ropes of pitching a startup company to potential investors. As difficult as that was, he said, it ended up being the best thing that happened to his work.
"The act of trying to commercialize both technologies has improved them, and it's made my research at the university better by a factor of 10," Farritor said. "There's absolutely no doubt that it's made my work better."
The reason is simple, Farritor said: When he talks with venture capitalists about funding his work, they have lots of questions. Specific questions, like Why would anyone buy this? or What exactly makes this product new and not just an improvement on existing technology?
"When we started, we were making these neat toys for surgery that might have some advantages," he said. "But getting them ready for the world forces you to be very specific on the whys and hows of the device. That process makes it a better technology."
Farritor is uniquely positioned to pass along that message to UNL students, said Jeffrey Shield, chairman of the department of mechanical engineering. As global competitiveness grows, the United States needs a technological workforce to maintain American leadership, one reason why UNL focuses on creating innovators, not just engineers, he said.
"Students need to learn different approaches to problem-solving, and to have knowledge in areas outside where the problem exists, allowing the problem to be viewed from different perspectives," Shield said. "For us, 'innovation' is simply the creative process applied to engineering problems."
So Farritor has launched a new engineering course examining the nuances of being an enterprising engineer – from brainstorming and collaborating within multidisciplinary teams to the intricacies of patents, intellectual property, attracting funding and sales.
"I expect this course to help our department's efforts to provide learning opportunities in innovation and entrepreneurship," Shield said. "This state should be proud of Shane and other professors in engineering who use their talents to impact Nebraska's economy, as well as their students."
At the very least, passing along what he's learned in readying his inventions for market should occupy Farritor until his next big idea hits him – or, as the case will likely be, methodically evolves from idea into a reality.
"I always have ideas bouncing around in my head that I want to try," Farritor said. "We'll see where that might lead."