MU graduate student team wins NASA award

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 7:06 p.m. CDT; updated 10:00 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 13, 2010

COLUMBIA — MU graduate students Xandra Sifuentes and Brad Snow were just one of 42 teams competing in the Rice University Business Plan Competition last month, but they brought home the $20,000 NASA prize. 

Sifuentes and Snow, were granted the NASA/Space Engineering Innovation award at the April 15-17 competition in Houston for presenting a groundbreaking surgical instrument.

The laparoscopic device, designed by several members of MU’s Biodesign Innovation Program in 2008 with Snow's help, was the foundation for Sifuentes and Snow's company, Adroit Motion. It will be used in minimally invasive surgeries once it is produced, he said. It has a hand piece at one end, a grasper at the other and is connected by a thin shaft.

Though several inventions like theirs already exist, their design is innovative and different from the rest.

Their instrument is hydraulically driven whereas, in other cases, wires control the device. Because of this, it has seven degrees of freedom, a term which means the shaft of the device can assume different shapes during surgery, unlike its competitors.

Snow and Sifuentes have only a digital prototype of their invention because of cost. However, thanks to the $24,100 they've won in competitions so far, including the $20,000 NASA award, they can take the invention to another level.

“This competition helps us advance (the device) further and make it a physical prototype,” Sifuentes said.

But money wasn’t the most important element of the award.

“It means that the design is valid and that the invention is worthy,” Snow said.

Sifuentes said they plan to use the prototype in their pitches to potential investors by the end of the summer.

The team’s instructor, Jake Halliday, who has helped coach Adroit Motion, said he is proud of his students’ award.

“It’s very gratifying to see graduate students who work hard be rewarded for their efforts,” he said.

Because of their award, Sifuentes and Snow’s company has won a year in the MU Life Science incubator, where they will be trained even further. This one-on-one coaching opportunity will help the business further their research and increase their chances for success.

“It’s a wonderful bridge from the classroom to the real world,” Halliday said.

Sifuentes said she hasn’t thought too far into the future about their product but would like to eventually compete again.

“We want to do more, but we haven’t popped in the 'when,'” she said.

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