Student rock climbing duo pursue science, business and Olympic dreams
by Amy Wolf
Strategically managing precise steps up a wall or cliff at breakneck speeds is exactly where Michael Finn-Henry, engineering student and candidate for the 2024 Paris Olympics, finds clarity. Speed climbing is a finesse sport that requires fast feet and an even faster brain.
Finn-Henry didn’t start out with Olympic dreams when he scaled his first wall in college. At the time, it was a recommended therapy for students with dyslexia.
“Climbing has helped me learn new approaches to overcoming obstacles of all kinds and has truly changed my life,” said the Massachusetts native.
The combination of rock climbing and dyslexia unlocked Finn-Henry’s extraordinary ability to visualize and solve problems.
“Since I can’t read textbooks the traditional way, I learn and create through hands-on experience,” he said.
The skill is something he translated into mechanical engineering and the invention of a breakthrough medical device designed to delay hemorrhage, a device that is on its way to FDA trials.
“I always think of my life as this three-legged stool with rock climbing, engineering and my dual deficit dyslexia all centered around this idea of finding creative solutions to overcome obstacles,” “I’m looking for the clear objective and then the details of how to make this work and how to make the device work and how to work with my dyslexia. It’s a kind of trifecta to overcome obstacles.
His scientific yin found savvy yang in business when Finn-Henry launched the Vanderbilt Climbing Cluband medical, health and society student Olivia Busk joined.
“I was never able to do anything halfway, so I looked for the most skilled person on the team so I could learn quickly,” said Busk, who had been a competitive ballerina. “I kind of started training like an Olympian with Michael from day one, and it really paid off.”
At the 2022 USA Collegiate National Climbing Championships, held April 21-23, Finn-Henry placed first in the nation in speed climbing. He is the new collegiate national record holder with a sprint time of 6.10 seconds. Busk placed seventh. Vanderbilt Climbing Club placed third as a team.
At the 2022 USA Collegiate National Climbing Championships, Michael Finn-Henry ranked No. 1 in the nation in speed climbing. The Vanderbilt Climbing Club team placed third overall in the country.
Olivia Busk trains with the Vanderbilt Climbing Club (Submitted Photo)
2021-22 Vanderbilt Climbing Club (Photo submitted)
While climbing, the two discovered that they shared a passion for making a difference and an interest in medicine.
Busk had been an EMT paramedic for four years before transferring to Vanderbilt and discovering her affinity for mixing business and medicine.
For years, Finn-Henry did research at the H. Fort Flowers Chair of Mechanical Engineering. Michael Goldfarbwhere he had developed a strong desire to use his engineering skills to create life-changing medical devices.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, canceling climbing and their respective corporate and engineering internships.
“We decided why not try to come up with our own idea and make something work,” Busk said.
“We have this great synergy,” Finn-Henry added. “Me on the engineering side, her on the medical affairs side – and by combining that, we could really make a big difference in the world.”
SEARCHING FOR A PROBLEM TO SOLVE
The duo sent hundreds of emails to professors and staff at Vanderbilt University Medical Center asking for ideas or problems that could be solved with a device.
“We thought we weren’t going to get any emails back, but instead we got almost 200 responses and had so many amazing meetings,” Busk said. “Honestly, it was one of the most shocking experiences because these medical professionals were so excited to work with two Vanderbilt students and imagine solutions to problems.”
Finn-Henry and Busk soon met two VUMC surgical fellows who would become the founding partners of their company. Medical EndoShunt.
“During my discussions with them, they were clearly extremely intelligent and hard-working people with inspiring drive and initiative. I knew I wanted to work with them,” said Dr. Jeremy Levin, who is now an assistant professor of trauma surgery at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital “My confidence in what we are doing is a pure reflection of my confidence in Michael and Olivia.”
Former VUMC surgical fellow Dr. Milad Behbahaninia was attracted to the team in part because he was an undergraduate engineering student.
“We surgeons are the customers of what medical engineers produce, so this is an ideal collaboration,” said Behbahaninia, who now works as a trauma surgeon at HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix. “There is an air of collaboration around all of Vanderbilt, on the clinical side and on the undergraduate and graduate student side, which makes what we do possible.”
COLLABORATE WITH THE WONDE’RY
The team quickly joined the Sullivan Family Ideator Program by the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s innovation center. The Ideator program leads innovators across the university through an evidence-based idea evaluation process and connects them with mentors and experts in customer discovery, business, manufacturing and more.
Their next big step was winning a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps or I-Corps program. In Vanderbilt, the NSF partners with the Wond’ry and the Vanderbilt Institute of Surgery and Engineering (VISE), to help bring STEM ideas to life.
“Through the NSF I-Corps program, we met with 300 surgeons across the United States to really refine our product,” Finn-Henry said.
Through collaboration, research, and trial and error, the team created a targeted hemorrhage control product called EndoShunt. The device is designed to prevent massive internal bleeding to give trauma surgeons time to work on a major injury, without completely blocking blood flow to other parts of the body.
Behbahaninia explained that the device enters the vein and creates a blockage in the hole, while a shunt allows necessary blood to pass, allowing the rest of the body to function normally.
Behbahaninia and Levin were working as active trauma surgeons during the I-Corps interviews. Finn-Henry and Busk therefore became rapid study experts in the field of hemorrhage control and conducted in-depth interviews that shaped the success of the product.
“You need people as tenacious as Michael and Olivia to bring these kinds of ideas to fruition, and I have 100% confidence in our product,” Behbahaninia said.
Finn-Henry and Busk recalled what they considered a watershed moment in this journey.
“One of the most pivotal moments for me was when the surgeon who runs the largest trauma center in the country took the time to speak with us,” Busk said. “Before we even mentioned what EndoShunt does, he described the need for our exact device! When we explained our device to him, he immediately jumped on it and asked how quickly we could get it to his hospital.
Finn-Henry said his mentor, Professor Michael Goldfarb, and Wond’ry’s mentors, Deanna Meador and Stryker Warren, were instrumental in helping them through the arduous stages of the grant proposal, as well as the manufacturing obstacles.
“Thanks to Professor Goldfarb’s experience in the commercialization of research, he was able to help us avoid many pitfalls. He was an incredible mentor and I hope to follow in his footsteps,” Finn-Henry said.
Busk said two courses she and Finn-Henry took on entrepreneurial business processes and technology-based planning and entrepreneurship, taught by professors Joseph Rando and Yiorgos Kostoulas respectively, were critical to their success.
The next step for the device is FDA trials, and the team is ready.
“My confidence in what we’re doing is a pure reflection of my confidence in Michael and Olivia and the high caliber work we’ve done so far,” Levin said.
As for Finn-Henry and Busk, they plan to manage the next steps of EndoShunt together while improving their climbing training, in hopes that Michael will compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024. Afterwards, Finn-Henry will work on his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering focused on medicine. at Harvard University. Busk will begin working at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company and plans to complete an MBA.
Both firmly believe that their partnership and progress is the result of a culture of collaboration fostered across Vanderbilt.
“I was shocked by the willingness of people to help. Everyone met two potentially overconfident undergraduate students with such openness and enthusiasm to collaborate. They wanted to see us succeed and did everything who was in their power to help us get to where we are, and that’s such a privilege,” Busk said.
“I think entrepreneurship is really about collaboration and finding innovative ways to rethink challenges, which is what I’ve had to do all my life,” Finn-Henry said. “Vanderbilt gave me this new perspective on how to reimagine issues and partner with people with unique talents and specialties to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”