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Phil Terrien and Matt Knoespel at Atrility Medical
February 13, 2023

Biomedical engineering alums find rhythm at design program spinoff

Written By: Tom Ziemer


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Five years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Matt Knoespel and Phil Terrien are co-founders and the engineering backbone of a medical device company that’s collected a slew of awards since spinning out of a biomedical engineering design project.

Atrility Medical is also filling a crucial need in postoperative care for newborns with serious heart defects and starting to establish itself in children’s hospitals around the country.

If the two Green Bay, Wisconsin natives are being honest, though, all that success has emerged from a design assignment that wasn’t even their first choice.

Each semester in the BME design program, student teams select client projects to pour themselves into for three months. After missing out on their preferred option, Knoespel, Terrien and their groupmates reluctantly grabbed what would turn into the company’s AtriAmp device from the list of assignments that hadn’t yet been claimed.

“It turned out to be a life-changing selection that was thrust upon us, to some degree,” says Knoespel, who, like Terrien, earned his BME bachelor’s degree in 2017. “When doors close, new ones open, and sometimes you don’t expect that.”

Along with three classmates, they quickly shook off their disappointment, dove into learning about the heart, and set to work creating a prototype of a device capable of both passing on cardiac signals to a bedside monitor and interfacing with an external pacemaker. Their creation won the Tong Biomedical Design Award, the top prize in the BME design program each year, and the first in a series of honors the device-turned-company has collected over the past six years. In October 2022, Atrility received a Wisconsin Innovation Award (one of three companies with roots in the college to collect prizes).

The AtriAmp, which secured U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2020, bears little resemblance to that first prototype, but the basic premise is the same: The device displays continuous signals from surgically placed temporary wires on the intensive care unit monitor. It also connects to a pacemaker, which is vital in case the heart slips into an arrhythmia after surgery.

Nicholas Von Bergen, an associate professor of cardiology at UW-Madison, turned to the BME design program after identifying the need for such a device in his work with infant patients. Von Bergen and Pete Lukszys, a lecturer in the Wisconsin School of Business, are Atrility’s other co-founders. While the AtriAmp works with adult patients as well, pediatric care has been Atrility’s initial focus, and more than 15 children’s hospitals across the country are either using the device or planning to soon.

In the four years between completing their design project and celebrating FDA approval, Knoespel and Terrien sharpened their product design to incorporate regulatory and manufacturing considerations, as well as additional safety features. But, as part of a small startup, they also had to dabble in strategic forecasting, accounting, sales support, marketing and more.

That they exhibited that kind of agility is no fluke; cultivating it is one of the aims of the BME design program’s open-ended format.

“It’s much more resemblant of what you see in the real world,” rather than typical coursework, says Terrien. “You face a lot of challenges that are not answerable via a textbook or a previous test. You’re kind of paving your own course. Having those experiences is helpful, because that’s what the startup world is, and more broadly, that is what the real world of engineering is.”

Atrility is one of at least nine companies to grow out of BME student design projects over the past 15 years. That’s no accident, either, says John Puccinelli, an associate teaching professor who coordinates the program as associate chair of the department’s undergraduate program. He says one of his top goals for any project is that it leads to some sort of appreciable outcome.

“Obviously, the education of our students is the top priority, but beyond that, whether it’s giving away something through an open-source platform, the students or clients jumping onboard a startup, or licensing the technology to another company,” says Puccinelli. “Those are the really important outcomes of some of these projects, to actually help people—better health by design, our slogan.”

Atrility has sponsored subsequent design projects in recent years. While the AtriAmp continues to gain traction in hospitals, the company is devising other technologies that could improve patient care in the wake of surgeries.

“We’re starting to build out a strategic advantage in this space of post-operative monitoring and becoming more aware of where the unmet needs are,” says Knoespel. “The history of this has been ‘walk through open doors,’ and I think that will continue.”

Top image caption: Phil Terrien and Matt Knoespel first worked on the prototype that became the AtriAmp in spring 2016. Now they’re working for Atrility Medical in University Research Park on Madison’s west side. Photo by Tom Ziemer.