By Anna Traverse
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
“I always liked building things and working with my hands,” Josh Herwig muses, holding out a prototype of the medical device he’s designed and engineered.
Now chief technology officer of SOMAVAC Medical Solutions, Herwig continuously gravitated toward science. Talking with a visitor to the SOMAVAC offices (housed within the Memphis Bioworks Foundation building, in the Medical District), Herwig recalls the steps that brought him here. The son of a particle physicist – his father has worked at Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories – Herwig grew up fascinated by the possibilities and magic of science.
He speaks of a time in childhood when he had the chance to go with his father inside a research nuclear reactor, to see the otherworldly blue light and blue water: “Totally not dangerous – I glow sometimes,” Herwig laughs, “but seriously, being with my dad drew me to science.”
But Herwig’s mission is about empathy as much as it is about science and engineering.
His mother worked as a nurse; his grandfather, a minister. Herwig’s own work is guided by what he calls “empathy-driven engineering principles.”
After graduate work in biomedical engineering, Herwig was pondering his next steps. He went to talk with his then-academic adviser, Dr. Esra Roan, at the University of Memphis.
Herwig was eager for a new project. And he soon learned Roan was thinking of transitioning away from academia. Roan had teamed with local surgeons in the past, and after making the decision to move out of the academic field, Herwig and Roan approached surgeons to ask what problems they needed solved. Surgeon after surgeon pointed to seroma as their greatest challenge.
Seroma is a buildup of fluid that occurs after large flap-forming surgeries, like mastectomies, and it carries costly, painful, and potentially dangerous consequences – like hospital readmission, even additional surgeries.
The fluid-drainage bulbs currently available to doctors are bulky and cumbersome. Not to mention, Herwig says, the drainage bulbs “add a constant reminder to the patients that they are recovering from breast cancer. That motivates us more than anything.” There’s the empathy part of Herwig’s engineering.
After conferring with surgeons in January 2016, he and Roan crafted a prototype of their signature, compact fluid-drainage device by the end of that February.
SOMAVAC’s device doesn’t have a name and isn’t on the market – yet. Regulatory hurdles still need to be cleared. But the national medical community is keenly interested. Herwig anticipates that SOMAVAC’s device will save money and reduce complications in the long run – alleviating strain on patients and hospital systems alike.
For two engineers without experience bringing a medical device to market, Memphis has been an ideal proving ground. Potential investors have been quite accessible.
“We can get in front of just about anybody we need to,” Herwig remarks.
In addition to its premier medical community, Memphis is emerging as an innovation and entrepreneurship hub. Thanks in part to skills gained in the ZeroTo510 program – a medical-device accelerator in Memphis that guides innovators from idea into action – they’ve been able to raise funds to aid in the development process. Herwig cites support from innovation engines EPIcenter and Start Co., as well as ZeroTo510.
Consistent with his empathy-driven engineering, Herwig feels a sense of responsibility to the city where SOMAVAC is launching.
“Memphis is a city that wants to dream big,” he says, “and we owe it to everybody to work as hard as we can.”
Josh Herwig is a graduate of the New Memphis Embark program. Learn more at newmemphis.org.