Nikolai Begg

Nikolai Begg: inventing life-saving medical devices

Begg, 25, is a PhD candidate in the department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and the recipient of the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his life-saving medical devices that improve the safety of puncture access procedures.

Now, at the age of 25, Begg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – and the recipient of the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his life-saving medical devices that improve the safety of puncture access procedures.

Were you really only thirteen when you discovered your vocation in life?

Yes, I’m one of those strange people who figured out what he wanted to do really early. I was in seventh grade when I interviewed some engineers who were working on surgical robots and was also able to watch a robotic surgery. It struck me that although I liked building and inventing things here was this world of medicine in which you could actually be helping someone.

Why puncture access devices?

When I first watched a laparoscopic surgery one of the first things I realised is that although it’s a ground breaking procedure where you go in through small incisions – you still have to stick an instrument into the patient to make them. And even that is pretty risky. Despite that surgeons train really hard just to be able to make an accurate incision around half the complications in laparoscopic surgery are due to the puncturing procedure. So I figured there has to be a better way.

What was your starting point?

During my master's work I decided to look at it from a fundamental physics point of view. It’s like when you drill through a wall and there’s that moment when you suddenly jerk forward and hit the back. It’s very difficult to stop a device from suddenly accelerating and you have to react very quickly. So I focused on what causes this problem and tried to come up with something that would address it.

How does the device work?

The first one had a lot more parts and was much less elegant. I started with a crude model built from popsicle sticks and some bolts – just to make sure it worked, and then developed it further moving to a single piece and adding different features. Now the basic mechanism has a blade that retracts within 1/100 of a second after passing completely through skin tissue.

Is the device ready to manufacture?

Not quite! I’m at the point where I’ve built a couple of prototypes and they have been demonstrated and proven. But there are many stages of testing and regulation to pass between what’s currently on my desk and an actual device to be used on a person. I also have to investigate the best ways of using it. Initially I was just thinking in terms of laparoscopic surgery but I later realised that puncture access is ubiquitous in medicine. Whether it’s a simple injection, an epidural, a trocar incision or drilling into the brain – when you talk to surgeons you find it’s a challenge to get every puncture right without going too far.

How involved will you be when it does get the green light?

It depends on which path it takes. There’s the choice of an established medical device manufacturer that would license the patent and I could advise them, or I could start a company and do it all myself. But really my main concern is actually getting it to help patients - so it’s a matter of picking the path to achieve that most effectively.

What else are you involved in at MIT?

My professor and I teach a class on medical devices to seniors and graduate students. Local physicians come in and pitch a problem, for example: “I’m a cardiologist and I really wish I had a gizmo that did this…” and teams of students have a semester to develop a working prototype solution. In the second semester we develop the ideas further to make them more robust and work well. Each semester I’m probably mentoring between two and four student teams.

I also am involved in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Programme where I teach leadership across all disciplines. I’m really excited about the mentorship and inspiring drive in other people. When you help people come up with a completely new idea and you see that fire in their eyes – it’s an incredible feeling.

Winning the Lemelson-MIT prize is an amazing achievement!

It’s an incredible honour. And even more awesome is that I can use the prize money for whatever I want.

Do you have much time for extra-curricular activities?

Well, I do play ice hockey and tennis, and I’m an avid skier. I’m also a licensed scuba diver…and I play the piano.  

And your plans for the future?

I’m very lucky at this early stage of my life to be doing something that I love and I want to keep doing that. I aspire to always be working on things that will actually make difference in medical practice. Whatever I end up doing I still want to keep one hand in invention.

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