Thursday, February 8, 2024

Noticing areas for improvement in the operating room, surgeon Maria Iliakova looked for solutions. The idea for her company, Innovation Surgical, arose by observing that surgical delays often resulted from surgical tools that were missing, late, or incorrect. 

Given this finding, Iliakova started developing a device to automatically track surgical tools. She did not consider commercializing the product until her hospital, Mercy Iowa City, filed for bankruptcy in August 2023. 

“I wanted to make a difference in the surgical industry more than just me as a surgeon,” Iliakova said. “I wanted to do something about the problems that my patients and staff were facing.”

Iliakova started Innovation Surgical to improve surgical tool tracking. The device is a robotic vending machine that tracks surgical tools both in and out of the operating room. The goal is for it to eventually automate the tracking, delivery, counting, sorting, and overall organization of surgical instruments used to complete surgeries. Iliakova filed a provisional patent in November and is working with an engineering team to build and test the prototype. 

Soon after meeting with Paul Heath, regional director of the University of Iowa Small Business Development Center, Iliakova registered Innovation Surgical for the Iowa City cohort of Venture School in the Fall of 2023. After the seven-week program, she won first place and $2,000 at the final pitch competition.

“Life sometimes gives you tough circumstances. You can either stay still or start moving,” Iliakova said. “Venture School provided a great opportunity to start moving.”

Prior to Venture School, Iliakova had never put words to the concept of customer discovery. That changed her approach. “It gave me so much insight,” she said. “You can develop something great, but ultimately people who use it have the final say.”

That was a slice of humble pie for Iliakova, who previously leaned on her curiosity to discover customer problems. While working full-time, she interviewed more than 150 people from central processing to administration to other surgeons to vendors and patients to characterize the challenge and possible solutions. Throughout this process, she talked with experts in the automotive, finance, and marketing industries, “basically, anybody who would talk to me,” Iliakova said.

Through her interviews, Iliakova heard one message loud and clear: Do one thing well. 

“It is important to remove the person from having to do the busy work of tracking tools,” she said. “Get the surgical tools from point A to point B correctly. That is mission zero.

“I am so grateful for all the mentors and connections I gained from Venture School. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had.”

To sign up for Venture School classes in Spring 2024, click HERE. Classes begin the week of Feb. 18.