How an NHL player inspired a better spinal implant design

Fall 2023 Velocity Pitch Competition winner’s flexible spinal implant shows promise

A shared interest in sports inspired a University of Waterloo professor and undergraduate student to design a new spinal implant that could help improve neck mobility and mitigate surgical complications.

"Being big hockey fans, we were both interested in a news story about NHL player Jack Eichel, who was in a battle with his team to get a spinal disc replacement," said Jonah Leinwand, co-founder of Pliantech, and biomedical engineering undergraduate student in University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering. "From there, the wheels for Pliantech started turning, and now this has become full-time work for me."

The artificial disc replacement design that Leinwand and Pliantech’s other co-founder - Dr. Stewart McLachlin, an assistant professor in mechanical and mechatronics engineering - invented was feted by judges as one of the winners of the Fall 2023 Velocity Pitch Competition last month.

As the intricate anatomy of the spine makes artificial disc replacement surgeries a difficult biomechanical problem, they need to strike a balance between spinal flexibility and stability. In the case of injury, disease or degeneration with aging, limitations of existing artificial discs can lead to serious post-operative complications that could hinder neck mobility.

"We’ve invented a new mechanical design concept for an artificial disc replacement used in the cervical spine (neck) to help patients recapture that mobility and try and prevent further surgeries and other complications," said Leinwand. "Our unique device sits between two vertebrae and moves as a single unit, similar to the spine’s natural disc."

McLachlin said the new artificial disc combines bio-design, compliant mechanisms, and 3D printing to create flexible titanium devices that can bend in ways similar to the neck’s natural mobility.

"In essence, it’s a flexible implant that can move in a controlled way that is similar to the spine, using thin flexures that we designed to not only provide support but also bend and twist," McLachlin said. "We’ve developed a preliminary device that has been additively manufactured using titanium and tested in my lab, but there’s still a lot of work to do in the design process for optimization and testing prior to using in actual patients."

Leinwand didn’t originally think he’d have "start-up founder" listed on his resume. Now, he sees entrepreneurship as more than just a career, but the most impactful way to help people using his knowledge in biomedical engineering.

"Entrepreneurship provides that responsibility and opportunity to take ownership to solve a problem and create something that can tangibly improve someone’s life," he said. "There is a great atmosphere at the University of Waterloo to work in entrepreneurship, access to great people and advisory at Velocity, which makes Waterloo the perfect breeding ground for start-ups."

Velocity accelerates entrepreneurs’ growth from idea to early-stage start-up and beyond. These founders have access to unmatched resources, collaboration space, funding, and an expansive and experienced network made possible only by the University of Waterloo - Canada’s top university for founders. In the 15 years since its inception as a University of Waterloo residence, more than 400 Velocity companies have netted more than US$26 billion in enterprise value.