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Paul Fearis: Informing Innovation at Duke BME

With a novel approach to medical device design, Duke BME’s newest faculty member seeks to prepare students for success in the medical device industry 

Paul Fearis joined Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering as a senior lecturing fellow in January 2019. With nearly 30 years of leadership as a medical device design consultant, Fearis will play a pivotal role in Duke BME’s expanded design curriculum, where he’ll mentor students interested in careers in industry and entrepreneurship. 

Originally trained in industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art and in mechanical design at Cranfield Institute of Technology in the United Kingdom, Fearis invented and helped develop and commercialize a broad range of medical devices for both multinational corporations and startups in the United States and around the world.

Prior to his arrival at Duke, Fearis was a Lecturer in Innovation in the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, where he worked with faculty in the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design. In his new role, Fearis will use his human-centered design perspective to help train students to better identify and develop solutions to unmet needs in across the continuum of health care.

“I specialize in an approach called ‘Insight Informed Innovation,’” says Fearis. “Medical device development too often begins with the incremental specification of a solution, then after some years of development you end up with a product that meets that specification. In my opinion, the design process shouldn’t start with someone describing a solution, it should start all the way back in the operating room, at the nurses’ station or in the clinic by building a deep and insightful understanding of how people work, the  outcome they need to achieve and the resulting needs that a solution would have to meet in order to be successful in their hands and in the market. Those needs should then be met by varied, creative and hopefully innovative solutions.”

Through Insight Informed Innovation, Fearis encourages his students to carry out ethnographic and observational contextual research around the stakeholders they are trying to serve. If they are working with a physician who is looking for a better way to remove a gallbladder, for example, he wants his students to act as a fly on the wall and watch how different people go about that job day-by-day. By insightfully observing these stakeholders in their natural environment, Fearis says, students will start to identify discontinuities that impede their work and which, if eliminated, could result in better patient outcomes or improvements in time, cost of other important parameters. 

“By careful analysis you’ll start to notice things and think, ‘That took longer than I thought it would,’ ‘There’s a lot of risk, time or cost associated with doing x, y and z’ or ‘They had to swap hands three times just to comfortably use this tool,’” says Fearis. “All of these observations start to bubble up, and these then become opportunities to innovate new and better solutions.

“Once you figure out a solution you can go back and test it in concept form with the people that gave you the insight in the first place to figure out what ‘good’ looks like to them. Then you can engineer that solution knowing you are meeting a real need in a way that really works for the people who will need it,” he says.

Fearis will use this tried-and-tested approach as a lecturer for students in the Master of Engineering program, which is specifically designed for students interested in professional careers in industry. Fearis will also draw on his business and entrepreneurial experience to collaborate with Bill Walker, the Pratt School of Engineering's Mattson Family Director of Engineering Entrepreneurial Ventures, on a new “Founder’s Track” for master’s students interested in entrepreneurship.  

In addition, Fearis will join Eric Richardson in leading the new Duke Design Health Fellows Program, a competitive nine-month fellowship program which brings together teams of students from BME, medicine and business to identify and design marketable solutions to unmet clinical needs.

Fearis’s new role at Duke is part of an increased push to focus on innovative design within the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. New initiatives over the past three years include a first-year, project-based engineering design course led by Ann Saterbak; a three-semester Design Fellows program that includes a required summer internship; and an immersive two-semester medical device design course, led by Mark Palmeri and Richardson, that promotes collaboration with the neighboring Duke University Medical Center.

 “Duke has always been very, very good at creating researchers and academics, but more than 50 percent of Duke BME students go into industry, and we want to make sure that their needs are met,” says Fearis. “I come from that world, and I’m happy to come to Duke and bring a very hands-on, industry and vocational focus. I’m not coming in as a PhD researcher, I’m coming in to help get that next student the job they want in industry, where they will change the future of healthcare; and have them end up running the show when they get there!”

Also joining the Duke BME faculty in January 2019 are:

Eric Richardson

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Samira Musah

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Jessilyn Dunn

Gaining Insights from Biomedical Big Data

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