Communications Specialist, Iowa JPEC

What University of Iowa medical student Anthony Piscopo and resident David Christianson created is no ordinary pair of eyeglasses.

Hawkeye Surgical Lighting’s light-mounted surgical eyeglasses emit a much brighter light than previous models and rest easily on a surgeon’s head. The glasses will eventually be controlled by motion and voice, allowing them to switch between normal white light and fluorescent light.

The fluorescent light sets Hawkeye Surgical Lighting apart from other products. Before surgery a patient swallows a substance that absorbs UV light and makes a tumor glow red. Piscopo and Christianson’s device allows surgeons to effectively operate using loupes instead of a larger, cumbersome microscope, allowing for safe and effective surgeries.

“When trying to remove a tumor, you want to get a clean margin because if you don’t it is going to grow back,” said Piscopo, a second-year medical student. “If you are too aggressive and take too much out, you can damage the brain or spine. This technology to fluoresently visualize tumors is currently only available in big surgical microscopes. It has never been incorporated in a headlight before.”

Until now.

Piscopo and Christianson completed “tons and tons” of customer interviews and most of the time the song remained the same: all available surgical lights are lackluster.

While Piscopo has taken the entrepreneurial lead at Hawkeye Surgical Lighting, Christianson, a fourth-year resident, excels on the technical side. As a resident, Christianson is involved in surgeries, and he started noting what tools would make procedures go more smoothly. Currently, there are lights tethered to large boxes that roll and plug into a wall. He knew LED technology was changing rapidly and wished for an efficient, wireless, bright light.

“I wanted one of those,” Christianson said. “But I didn’t see anything I necessarily wanted, and the best thing out there was pretty expensive.”

Thanks to a background in electrical work and mechanical design, Christianson developed his own. The first design consisted of a Coca-Cola bottle with the top cut off and attached to safety glasses. He disassembled an LED flashlight — a Christmas gift from his parents — to see what element was used. Christianson bought a 3D printer and created different design models.

“There have been lights that have attached to glasses for many, many years,” Christianson said. “The thing that is novel is the way you are able to control it with your voice and body position. Nobody has anything like this.”

Research shows that up to 20% of surgery time can be spent adjusting lights for the surgeon, Piscopo said. Because a surgeon needs sterile hands, a nurse is required to assist with moving lights. This takes time and time is money.

“It is a reflection on teamwork,” Christianson said. “There has to be a good idea component and a good invention which I think we have. It also must be developed appropriately. It is humbling, gratifying, and it is coming together into something we’re excited about.”

Hawkeye Surgical Lighting intends to sell two versions: one with fluorescents and one with normal light because not every type of surgery requires fluorescents. The goal is to start selling the lights at the end of the calendar year.

“We’re in go-to-market phase,” said Piscopo, who is no stranger to the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “The last year we have been doing customer discovery and listening to people. What are the problems we need to solve and how do we go about developing that?”

Both Piscopo and Christianson have interesting backstories. Originally from Clear Lake, Iowa, Piscopo was a hockey player growing up and attended Wartburg College on a choir scholarship. After his freshman year he spent the summer at the University of Iowa, doing research for Dr. Matthew Howard in the Department of Neurosurgery. He transferred to Iowa in 2016.

After his first year at Iowa, Piscopo borrowed a friend’s garage, taught himself to hand-stamp phrases onto small metal plates, tied the plate with an elastic cord and sold between $10,000-$20,000 in inspirational bracelets.

His daily walks to the Chemistry Building took him past the John Pappajohn Business Building. Piscopo talked to someone there about raising money for his bracelets, joined the Founders Club, hooked up with mentors, and learned how to pitch. His bracelet company, Conquer Accessory, partnered with charities like Dance Marathon, Courage Ride, and a fundraiser for Lululemon.

Christianson is from Long Island, New York. His first stint in college was for mechanical engineering, where his summers were spent restoring antique automobiles. That led to an understanding of how to use metal-working machinery and woodworking tools, so Christianson opened a cabinetry shop.

His interest in a pediatric type of brain tumor led him to medical school. He married in 2005 and lived in his wife’s home state of South Dakota before coming to the University of Iowa as a resident.

Piscopo and Christianson met by chance after Piscopo sat in on a routine research briefing. Christianson gave an update on the light he was working on and after the report, Piscopo reached out via email.

“We started plugging away at this,” Piscopo said. “We have stuck with it a long time and kept making progress. It started from a research meeting.”

Piscopo and Christianson have toyed with the idea of shortening Hawkeye Surgical Lighting to Hawkeye Surgical because they might pursue other medical developments that aren’t specifically related to lighting.

“It has been a learning process,” Christianson said.

Piscopo and Christianson have received the 2021 Student Startup of the Year Award in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center will recognize them Oct. 8 at Hancher Auditorium.