Ryan Mizner has a patent pending for a device called The Bridge, a physical therapy tool developed by the University of Montana associate professor and one of his students.
The apparatus, developed over the course of some four years, reduces the effect of gravity on patients. At UM, Mizner primarily uses it to help rehabilitate athletes who have had reconstruction on their ACL, or their anterior cruciate ligament.
In recent years, UM has pushed marketable research as a priority, but Mizner did not go in search of a patent when he began to design the device.
"We were looking to answer a question and solve a problem clinically," Mizner said Tuesday in the motion science lab in the basement of the Skaggs Building.
As a researcher generating cutting-edge technology on campus, Mizner represents one of the university's best-kept secrets, according to Anita Santasier, chair of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.
"Stuff like this is really not being done everywhere, and Ryan is way ahead of the curve," Santasier said.
The device represents a trend at UM, too, according to Joe Fanguy.
In the past five years, the university's portfolio of patents has grown to exceed 100, said Fanguy, director of technology transfer at UM and vice president of research and development.
"Obviously, these technologies, inventions, have the possibility of solving valuable problems in our society, so we typically try to engage some external business or business entity to take that patented technology ... to the marketplace as a product or service," Fanguy said.
For Mizner, a physical therapist and clinical scientist, the problem at hand was twofold.
First, patients feel nervous taking on activity after an injury. Second, the loads on their legs and knees need to be reduced to help them improve and heal in a safe way.
"(The Bridge) reduces the effect of gravity on a patient, so it allows people to do very fast, rapid sports-simulated activities," Mizner said.
The technology the device uses is simple, he said, but the way he and his student, Jonathan Rice, packaged it is unique.
The Bridge's components include a rope or tubing system anchored to the ground, a pulley on a bar mounted to the ceiling, and a pair of custom-made shorts and a yoke attached to the tubing. Unlike harnesses, the shorts allow athletes a full range of motion.
The physical therapist can attach different combinations of tubing to decrease the weight of the patient on the ground, as much as 30 percent on a 300-pound person, or 90 pounds.
Large hospitals use a comparable system with a robotic motor, software and heavy-duty hardware, and the machine costs some $200,000, Mizner said.
"The design (of The Bridge) is really simple, so the cost should be a lot lower," he said.
He estimated it could be in the range of $20,000, and he also said it allows patients to have fun. Soccer players can practice headers, volleyball players can work on bumping and basketball players can dribble.
The device is helpful for physical therapy patients who need rehabilitation, but the effects of the work on campus will have a much larger ripple, Santasier said.
Once Mizner publishes his research, it will have an international reach, she said.
"This is just a very exciting time for us. This whole idea of being able to reach out to the public beyond our labs is so critical," Santasier said.
In the summer, universities receive rankings from various organizations, and at least one gave UM high marks because of the number of patents it generates.
About five years ago, UM had the goal of counting some 10 to 20 inventions a year based on its size and peer institutions, Fanguy said.
"We have exceeded that mark," he said.
The university is seeing anywhere from 15 to 20 inventions per year, he said, and it's also generating copyrights and trademarks. For instance, it has copyrighted curriculum in the area of Native American historical studies.
Roughly half of the new inventions move into the first phase of a patent application through UM, Fanguy said. Once UM applies for a patent, its success rate is 90 percent to 95 percent, which he attributed to astute legal counsel.
"Then we take an additional step to look at business opportunity," Fanguy said.
The process can take years as an idea moves from exploration to thesis to a potential product to possible clinical trials and beyond. The patent is one step along the way, albeit an important step for some developments.
"There are certain technologies, if they are not protected, patented, the competitive advantage to launch that product or bring it to market is lost," Fanguy said.
The culture to push for invention at UM has improved in recent years, Mizner said. It's also part of UM's mission, and he said the work Fanguy does is key to faculty success.
He talks with instructors about how UM can support their developments, and he works with them on licensing agreements and other paperwork.
"Most faculty members, it's not on their radar screen, and they don't know how to navigate the waters," Mizner said.
If a researcher does bring a patented idea to market, the benefits trickle to UM, the professor and the professor's lab, he said. Some of the money goes back into the umbrella school to support more research and the possibility of more invention.
So far, UM is still "in that building capacity phase" in encouraging marketable research, Fanguy said. And he said he's pleased faculty members are taking advantage of the opportunities.
"At the end of the day, it's not the patent or the copyright or the trademark that's necessarily going to make or break an idea," Fanguy said. "It's really working with the right people. And so in that spirit, I feel that it's our role to encourage people to think broadly, think creatively.
"And once we have ideas, we can work to help them explore what to do with those from a business-type perspective."