Spectrum Health is behind a first-of-its-kind thermal bra for breast cancer survivors, designed to keep them warm.
The idea for the bra came from Jodie Faber, an employee of the Grand Rapids-based health care system.
"This is something that is going to increase the comfort of breast cancer survivors," said Faber, director of Spectrum Health United Lifestyles, the wellness and prevention program associated with Spectrum Health United and Kelsey hospitals.
In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.
Soon after reconstructive surgery, she was swimming in Grand Traverse Bay on a sunny afternoon. When she came out of the water, she noticed her breasts were bright red.
The silicone in her breast implants became like ice packs, chilling the rest of her body because she no longer had tissue in her chest to provide a layer of installation for her core.
Lying out in the sun wasn't enough to warm her. She had to take a hot shower to get rid of the chills.
The experience had her looking for a better solution.
The most common recommendation were hand warmers. But they burned her skin, now sensitive after the removal of tissue and nerve endings.
'Someone listened to me'
A decade later, she relayed her idea for some kind of warming bra to Mike Czechawkyj, a nurse on Spectrum Health Innovations, a for-profit business venture the health system created in 2007.
The venture began as an initiative three years earlier to encourage a culture of innovation by providing a channel for employees to share ideas for improving care.
Faber connected with the Innovations team in 2015, during a "road show," when the team tours Spectrum facilities to let employees know about the programs and elicit their ideas.
"This is going to sound odd but here is my problem," Faber remembers telling Czechawkyj. "It felt like someone listened to me."
Spectrum turned to Central Michigan University's acclaimed fashion merchandising and marketing program for help with the project.
Faber was integral to the students' work. They put her in a special chamber that measured the temperature of her chest in relation to the rest of her body.
They listened when Faber said she didn't like an idea of a bra with wires and batteries that worked similar to a portable heating pad.
"The last thing I wanted when I went out was to have a battery back on my bra," Faber said. "I told them 'I just wanted to look and feel normal'."
So the students focused on textiles. Faber spent a lot of time trying on bras made with different materials.
Liberating is how she describes trying on the students' thermal bra prototype.
"It was one of the first times I felt normal," Faber said.
The bra is made of three types of material. The one closest to the body keeps in heat, the middle layer insulates and the top layer keeps out the cold.
Faber likes that the bra looks feminine and lacy. The product isn't considered a medical device or a garment.
"We want to market it as an everyday bra," Lazzaro said.
Faber would like to see a swimsuit version.
Currently, there are two versions: one for the cold months and another for the warmer months.
The thermal bra is expected to be available for sale in 2018, priced between $50 to $80.
"We want to look at best possible way to get it into the hands of women at the best possible price," said Anthony Lazzaro, a product development specialist with Spectrum Health Innovations.
The thermal bra is moving to a trial phase. They are looking for women, ages 40 to 70, who have had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery after a cancer diagnosis more than a year ago.
Those who participate will get three bras for free.
The two-year development of the thermal bra is pretty fast compared to some of the Innovations team's other projects that can take take 7 to 8 years to get approval from Food and Drug Administration.
"We are here to solve problems," Lazzaro said.
Nearly all the Innovations' projects have been suggested by Spectrum Health employees.
The team sorts through about 1,200 ideas a year, with only about 1 percent making it through the commercialization process.
"This one caught our attention because it would help women right away," said Lazzaro of the thermal bra.
The Innovations team has grown to 11 employees with the addition of clinicians and engineers along with business development experts like Lazzaro.
He credits the clinicians for tripling the number of ideas. Faber says she felt comfortable talking to Czechawkyj because he understood her patient experience.
Patents went up after bringing on two engineers. The group has nine licenses and seven patents on products.
Innovations has partnered with several companies from Kalamazoo-based Stryker to Minneapolis-based Medtronic to bring products to the market.
The team also often works with students at Michigan universities such as CMU, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan State, Hope College and Michigan Tech.
The four CMU students who developed the thermal bra prototype are being given the opportunity to take the project to the next level.
They are working to ready the bra for market as part of their own company, Elemental LLC, under a licensing agreement with Spectrum Health Innovations.
The students are Augusta Overy, Emily Austin and Haley Rusicka, who have since graduated, and Sue Wroblewski, a CMU graduate student is doing her thesis on the clincial trial that will involve 15 women testing out the thermal bra.
"It's pretty amazing," said Wroblewski, who runs the CMU research lab that tests thermo properties of textiles. "We are excited we found a solution that is working and we're going onto the next step."
Half the money from the licensing agreement will go to Faber.
"We want to encourage community collaboration," Lazzaro said. "We want to take care of employees and give them incentives to come up with ideas."