‘During networking events and meetings I am often the only woman, but I don’t think about it. I grew up with four brothers and am therefore fairly insensitive to such situations.’ Inge Bruynooghe is fully engaged in expanding the Ergotrics start-up. She sees great potential for inflatable surgical pads that position patients in the correct position. ‘In America and Europe, 3.2 million operations are performed annually on patients in the prone position. That’s a huge market for Ergotrics.’
Inge Bruynooghe is a former plant manager of Philips (Signify) in Turnhout and is now supporting the medical tech start-up Ergotrics. She studied commercial engineering in Leuven and subsequently obtained an MBA from Cornell University (New York). ‘I would recommend studying abroad to anyone. This was very complementary for me: many practical case studies in small groups, while Leuven was more theoretical in a larger group of students’, Inge looks back on her study time.
Inge grew up in an entrepreneurial family because her father ran Bruynooghe Koffie, a family-owned coffee roaster in Kortrijk. The coffee brand still exists and was taken over in 1999 by the Turnhout based Miko. The relationship with coffee has remained, for that matter, because Inge Bruynooghe has a seat on Miko’s board of directors.
Ergotrics from Turnhout, Kempen, specializes in positioning and moving patients during surgery with compressed air. The company is located on the Open Manufacturing Campus (OMC) on the old Philips site in Turnhout. And that is no coincidence, because Inge Bruynooghe was in charge of this Philips branch. She worked for Philips for several years in Shanghai. Her husband had a job at another company and their expat contracts ran parallel. Later Inge moved to the Philips headquarters in Eindhoven and ended up in Turnhout. After twenty years as a manager in a multinational, she was looking for a new challenge. ‘I used to be a small fish in a big goblet, and now I was a big fish in a small goblet. I like that situation.’
It was a logical choice that OMC became its base of operations. ‘A pleasant environment, all companies that want to grow and produce. Here you have a lot of knowledge and expertise in barely one square kilometer. Start-ups learn from each other, we inspire each other, it’s a good ecosystem. My job is to structure Ergotrics and bring this fantastic product to the market.’
Ergotrics was founded in 2014 by neurosurgeon Paul Depauw. Doctor Depauw established in the operating room that it is not easy to tilt an anesthetized patient. ‘This often requires extra nursing staff – sometimes up to six people – to do this safely. As a doctor he was confronted with this problem every day’, says Inge. “When he saw in a news bulletin how a overturned truck was being straightened by the fire service by means of pads with compressed air, he got the idea to use this principle on the operating table as well.”
‘Patients are always first placed under anesthesia in the supine position. Depending on the type of surgery, you need to get them on their stomach and in the right position. This is especially the case with back operations – by neurosurgeons. That is why Dr. Depauw was looking for a solution to make turning around as efficient as possible. Furthermore, the positioning is crucial to minimize the pressure on the body in order to avoid complications and bleeding.’
An Ergotrics Inflatable Board (IBO) has a notch on one side and tilts the patient from the supine position to 70 to 80 degrees, after which he ends up on the stomach on the operating table. The mat consists of foam covered with skin-friendly textile that is also used in police vests. Even before the tilt, Inflatable Prone Support (IPS) cushions are placed on the patient’s chest and pelvis and then inflated so that the patient is in the correct operating position and all parts of the body remain pressure-free during the operation.
Since the appointment of Inge Bruynooghe as CEO in October 2018, the company has accelerated growth. ‘Our product was launched in June. The patent dates from 2014 but there were some hurdles. It turned out that the cost price to produce the prototype was much more expensive, the material was not skin-friendly, etc… You have to make your product scalable and translate that into an efficient production process,’ says Inge.
Compressed air cushions to position patients on the operating table are in fact a world first. ‘Compressed air is supplied in every operating room anyway. You have different connections for the supply of oxygen, nitrogen, laughing gas and therefore also compressed air. For example, compressed air is also used to control drills.’
‘Ergonomically, our product is an important improvement. In industry and construction there are rules that if bags have to be lifted, they may not weigh more than 25 kilos. A patient can weigh more than 100 kilos, so for the load on the staff in the operating room this makes a huge difference. There is also more awareness of safe and ergonomic lifting methods.’
The start-up now employs three salespeople and is busy building a network of distributors in Europe. The Ergotrics product has now also received the European CE mark. Inge Bruynooghe: ‘We are busy demonstrating our cushions everywhere. Surgeons immediately see its usefulness and benefits. There is a lot of interest, but hospitals work with budgets, so they have to provide a separate pot for this investment and something like that takes time.’
For Inge Bruynooghe, the roll-out of these cushions is not the end point, because she sees many other applications. For example, the range can expand to products for heavier patients because the market for obese patients is growing, especially in the United States. ‘We can also ergonomically improve certain physical tasks in hospitals and in home care. For example, washing patients, especially if they are bedridden and heavier. By inflating the mat, a patient can easily be brought into the desired position. We are thinking of co-creation to design a mobile system with inflatable cushions with home nurses. Furthermore, Ergotrics is investigating potential applications in veterinary medicine with the help of the University of Antwerp
There are also many challenges digitally. ‘We currently have electronics in the cushions to measure how many times they are used. In the future, for example, in home care, the position of a patient can be monitored via sensors in the cushions, in order to avoid bedsores. Our administration is digital, but the production is manual. Later on with a larger production, we will also automate those processes.’
At the time, it was close to Inge Bruynooghe studying to be a civil engineer, but she feared that her study would be too technical and less broadly oriented. ‘I have great admiration for people who can turn an idea into a technical product.’ Being a ‘woman’ has never hindered Inge in her career. Not even in the men’s bastion that Philips was at the time. ‘You hear the classic jokes, but that has never stopped me. As a young girl I never wore skirts, and much to my daughter’s frustration I don’t like shopping.’ (laughs)
Inge finds it striking that the social pressure on working mothers in the Netherlands is greater than in Belgium and childcare is also more expensive. In the Netherlands you see even fewer women at the top who are leaders and who are also mothers.
Her advice to ambitious girls: ‘You put a lot of time into your career. So choose work that you really enjoy doing, that you can learn from every day. If you enjoy doing something and you do it a lot, you will become good at it after a while.’
For Inge, the Belgian education system should already encourage technology in our children in primary school by offering technology as a subject on points, equivalent to mathematics or Dutch. ‘Schools must also organize themselves to set up well-equipped STEM campuses per region, with teachers from practice who have worked in automation themselves. The interaction between those STEM schools and the industry is also important here. Companies must support our technical schools as best as possible, for example by exchanging knowledge about the latest automation techniques’, concludes Inge Bruynooghe.