Albuquerque emergency room physician Scott Forman, left, and Sandia engineer Mark Reece look over a prototype set of improved trauma shears they worked on together. Photo by Randy Montoya
An Albuquerque physician teamed with a Sandia National Laboratories engineer to improve the doctor's trauma shears design so emergency personnel can get to the injuries they need to treat more quickly.
"Sometimes seconds count. This product will make a difference for the medical community," said Mark Reece of Sandia's Multiscale Metallurgical Science & Technology group. "It's neat to see something come out of Sandia that will save lives."
Reece worked with Scott Forman, an emergency room physician and CEO of the Albuquerque startup Héros, formerly known as EMvolution, to improve the performance and durability of trauma shears—the go-to tool for responders in the first seconds of a crisis. The shears must cut through a wide range of materials, from denim to leather to Kevlar, to expose wounds for treatment.
Reece and Forman joined forces through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) Program, which pairs entrepreneurs with scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. The state-funded program was established in 2000 by the New Mexico Legislature to help small businesses get technical support from the labs. The program has given 1,876 small businesses in 33 counties $29.8 million in technical assistance. The help is free of charge to the business.
Smarter, more durable trauma shears was something Forman had imagined and tinkered with in his garage for years. He has a background in mountaineering and wilderness medicine and was frustrated by the flimsy, disposable construction of typical trauma shears. "They are imprecise and made of cheap, shoddy materials with a blade that dulls quickly," he said. "People just throw them away."
And they get lost. "It's not at all uncommon to have a patient come into the ER and everybody starts looking for their darn trauma shears," Forman said. "They're hard to keep track of. You can't find them."
Forman fitted the handle of his first home-made shears with an integrated carabiner that clips onto a belt. He attached it to a standard manufactured set of trauma shears blades coated with titanium nitrate for a sharper, longer-lasting edge. And he personalized the shears with laser engraving so if they got lost, they'd find their way back.
Forman founded a company in 2008, applied for a patent and made 1,100 pair in his spare time while working as a University of New Mexico resident in emergency medicine. "They just caught on from word of mouth," he said. "Most of the EMTs in New Mexico carry some version of my early trauma shears. I started to think this could work."
But Forman needed serious help to produce the top-notch shears he envisioned and believed he could sell in bulk to global customers in military, medical, emergency and other fields. He met flight paramedic Daniel Barela, who had brought a product to prototype through NMSBA with his company Trinity Medical.
Barela was intrigued by Forman's trauma shears and joined the business. They applied to NMSBA. In December 2010, Forman was directed to Reece—and stopped making shears in his garage.
"I took Mark our first-generation product and told him we needed help with the material selection for the blades and the blade design so the shears could cut through a more robust set of materials," Forman said.
He handed Reece about 15 materials that emergency personnel typically face, including Kevlar from bulletproof vests, loose gauze, diapers, fiberglass and plaster, all with different densities and compositions. He also gave Reece a variety of blades.
"We wanted Mark to determine if there was one blade design that would give the most bang for the buck," Forman said. "And Mark, the genius that he is, did it."
Reece studied the best shears from all over the world, focusing on why some worked better than others and why none worked well on synthetic fibers such as Kevlar, ballistic nylons and polyethylenes. He tested all the blades on all the materials.
"The failures were very reproducible," Reece said. "I began to see a trend of what worked and why."
He researched the literature on cutting with scissor blades. "I drew in material on everything from hairstylists to fabric manufacturers and tried to assemble a picture of what was going on here," he said. "I got out the microscope and video camera and examined what happens as each blade attempts to cut fabric."
Reece learned how serrations should be made and combined that data with information on dentation of animals such as sharks, whose triangular teeth are powerful shearing machines. He then tested various blade angles on all the materials. Reece machined trial blades and gave Forman reports and prototypes. "We honed in on a design that gives much better cutting capability," Reece said.
Physician Scott Forman's prototype trauma shears has an ergonomic handle with an integrated carabiner, a proprietary blade design and various attachments, some recommended by emergency medical technicians. Photo by Randy Montoya
He and Forman worked together for about six months. The base-model shears they developed has an ergonomic, ambidextrous handle with an integrated carabiner. The blade length and handle pivot point are engineered to generate considerable torque, so less effort is needed for heavy cutting. The blades are high carbon content surgical stainless steel that can be autoclaved.
"We incorporated a proprietary blade design," Forman said. "Mark is excessively meticulous. He created the pitch of this blade, the troughs between the serrations, the angulations of the serrations and pitch of the other blade—the nonserrated side—to create shears that can cut through everything. It's brilliant."
The shears also have a ripper attachment with a replaceable blade to zip through clothing, a bottle opener for medications, a key for oxygen tanks and a window punch. "It's an all-in-one tool," Forman said. "EMTs suggested some of the features."
Under NMSBA rules, the program pays for a specific amount of the researcher's time, which is woven into his or her existing work. The business owner keeps rights to any intellectual property generated through the collaboration.
Forman's company, Héros, has a patent pending on the final trauma shears design and is negotiating prototype production, product manufacturing and distribution. Héros includes Forman and Barela, along with Drew Tulchin, who focuses on business development, and marketing director Mike Sophir.
Reece said he enjoyed working with Forman. "It was very cool," Reece said. "Scott Forman is the real deal. He's enterprising and has good ideas. When he said this is what we need and this is why, you listen."
John Willgohs of the Bernalillo County Fire Department said he had a eureka moment when he first saw Forman's shears. "The ones out there are adequate, but if you have to cut through anything of any substance or thickness, you might as well throw the shears away afterward," he said. "To have something stronger and more beefy, wow, it's fantastic. And the clip, oh my gosh. You're rushing around in the heat of the moment, it's chaotic, and you have to find the shears. When they're clipped to your belt, they're right there. That clip was another eureka moment."
Mike Cavit, an Albuquerque emergency room technician and EMT, said he appreciates that the blades stay sharper longer and can be resharpened. "The clip makes them accessible and the blades stay sharp," he said.
The shears will cost more than typical throwaway models, from $20 to $60 versus $5 to $10. Both Cavit and Willgohs say the extra cost would be well worth it to have better shears.
Forman said he has other ideas for improved emergency equipment and would like to work again with Reece. He plans to reapply to NMSBA. "It's a fantastic program," Forman said. "It's invaluable."
Forman, who finished his residency and joined Presbyterian Hospital in 2010, said the trauma shears have been a labor of love.
"I've learned a lot about business, marketing, customer service, material selection and design, manufacturing, prototyping, intellectual property, acquisition, contract law," he said. "Just about every day somebody comes up and says, 'Aren't you the doc who makes trauma shears?' They have ideas of their own. These are nurses and paramedics and people who know what they're talking about. I want to be able to help get those products to market."