The Mission: Possible Team of BERG

The Mission: Possible Team of BERG

For the past 8 years there is a group, working in the shadows to take healthcare innovations and bring them to life through engineering. That is the mission that they have chosen to accept. You may not know of them but, those who do, call them BERG (Biomedical Engineering Research Group at Stellenbosch University).

There are so many amazing medical innovations that come out of Stellenbosch University. There is Sensi Cardiac, which is a portable diagnostic tool that works like a Shazam for heart-beats, automatically detecting abnormal heart noises. There is the IRI, a ‘smart needle’ that uses sensors to help doctors and nurses find veins and arteries. – There is CONC which uses VR headsets for mobile phones and algorithms to detect concussions.

All of these were made probable by the genius of individuals and groups within the medical department. But they were made possible by the BERG team.

BERG, an acronym for Biomedical Engineering Research Group, is a collective made up by a combination of 35 post-graduate engineering student, who want something fascinating to apply their minds to (often for their master’s theses) together with professors and doctors who support, encourage and inspire them. For years it was headed by Prof. Pieter Fourie but is now in the more-than-capable hands of Prof. Dawie van den Heever, a lecturer in design and mechatronics, who’s own personal passion is the exploration of the brain, the mind, and the mechanics that make both work.

Prof. Fourie left BERG in order to support them better. His new venture, innovation4life, is an Research & Development start-up and was created to take the rough-but-functional prototypes built by BERG, and get them ready for commercial applications. They bridge the gap between postgraduate research and the biomedical industry by ‘developing an academically sound proof-of-concept into a ready-to- manufacture prototype’. Once these concepts has been proven through innovation4life, the Innovus team will get involved, to commercialise these technologies out to the markets.

But BERG are not merely a back-office tech-specialist go-to guys for others. Only 25% of the work they do is to support others’ ideas. They are also a think-tank, they do research, create and then develop their own ideas. These biomedical innovations take two general forms:

The first is the intangible. Prof Dawie van den Heever in particular is doing fundamental work in neuroscience and neural engineering, as they unravel the mysteries of the human brain – free will, the mechanisms of perception and semantic categorisation. They work together with both industry and orthopaedic surgeons to research and improve methods of surgical planning, navigation and reconstruction, solving problems arising from the treatment of muscles, bones and joints. They build in-silico models as a method to analyse complex biological systems, such as a heart valve in action, so that the correct interventions can be planned. They use their knowledge to develop the algorithms and machine learning to make things like Sensi Cardiac work, and they use machine learning to pick through big data, finding patterns that could serve as early warning systems in ICUs. They even have a project where they are investigating the optimal rugby place-kicking strategy.

The second is more physical, where you can put the finished product in a box and sell it. This includes things like a portable, comparatively inexpensive thermoacoustic system for infants that cools the brains of brain-damaged new-borns, to slow their metabolism and give them the time they need to get to a hospital before the damage is permanent. They have developed a nanoscale flow-sensor that can be retrofitted to intubation breathing tubes to help prevent babies’ tiny lungs from being overinflated. There’s VitalTrac, which is an in-ear sensor that monitors vital signs – heartbeat, respiration, oxygen saturation, temperature – without getting in the way of doctors and surgeons, and it’s about the size of a hearing aid.

Then there is the application of computational biomechanics to develop things like patient-specific knee replacements and ‘smart ankles’, an actuator that uses EMG and IMU sensors to help a prosthetic ankle perform more closely to a natural one. For autistic and concentration-deficient children, they have created a series of mobile games that can diagnose as well as build cognitive function – cheaper than the more standard psychological exams, and accessible to anyone. (It’s called PANDA, or Paediatric Attention Deficit Disorder App, which is pretty cool.)

Beyond the above projects, there are the other life-changing things they are building to help them fulfil their mission of ‘making life better for the 1 billion in Africa’. InfantWatch aims to reduce the shockingly high 60% of preventable infant deaths, with a tiny sensor disk that is attached to the baby, and sends diagnostic information to a receiver, servers, the cloud and the InfantWatch app. –There is a stethoscope that works in a similar way and will help rural areas diagnose heart problems with little training. They are even developing a synthetic biological immune system booster to increase the amount of CD4 and CD8 T cells that are destroyed during HIV and TB treatment, and the much cheaper inhaler or patch delivery systems to get the booster into the body.

And all of these amazing, revolutionary, brilliant innovations are but the tip of the iceberg.

There are other benefits to having groups like BERG and innovation4life on your team. Their challenges retain talented engineers before they jet off to the more lucrative European markets, taking their skills with them. They help our nation by creating cost-effective medical solutions that are viable options for our unique population. And they’re ‘Robin Hood’ing the European markets, who pay 20x the price for these incredible innovations, which drives the engine of the group. We’re fast becoming the Silicon Valley of medical technology and that is in part thanks to the work done by BERG. You may not see them, but you will definitely feel the impact they make in the coming years.