Health Tech: Michael Bottlang On How WaveCel’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our…

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Health Tech: Michael Bottlang On How WaveCel’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

Understand the problem to be solved: This must go beyond accepted opinions about the problem, but must be based on evidence and data. Simply understanding the causes of brain injury took us 10+ years alone and involved in-house testing along with international data reconciliation from industry experts.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bottlang of WaveCel.

A native of Germany, Dr. Bottlang earned his PhD in Biomechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa. He has subsequently focused on improving the treatment of orthopedic trauma patients. His inventions for treating fractures of the pelvis and chest wall have changed the standard of care in over 40 countries. He has been funded by the US National Institute of Health for his groundbreaking research and innovative technology on helmet safety. At the Legacy Biomechanics Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, Bottlang has overseen the creation of the state-of-the-art Helmet Impact Testing (HIT) Laboratory. He has collaborated with Surgeon Steven Madey for the past 15 years to create WaveCel.

Dr. Madey is a board-certified hand and microvascular surgeon who came to Portland after medical school at Columbia and a residency at the University of Iowa. Madey’s skill and focus have made him one of the most sought-after surgeons in the Northwest, and his collaborations with Michael Bottlang at the Legacy Biomechanics Laboratory have produced devices that have saved hundreds of lives.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

Madey: I grew up on Long Island in New York. My father came to New York through Ellis Island from Ukraine as a kid, and established a small family in the Farmingdale area. Growing up, I spent my time playing football, studying, and working as a carpenter on construction sites. I attended Hofstra University, where I played tight-end on the football team. At that time, the admission criteria for Hofstra was literally walking in and signing up for college. In my latter undergrad years, I became deeply interested in medicine. I knew that it would be a challenge to pursue medicine as a first-generation American with no money coming from Hofstra, so I studied for the MCAT for about 20 hours a day for months leading up to the exam. I scored in the 99th percentile and was admitted to Columbia University’s medical school. That set me on a path to purse Orthopedic Surgery that resulted in a residency program in Iowa, where I met Dr. Bottlang. I immediately recognized his work ethic and ability to practically problem solve, and we were an instant match; we have been partners ever since. As a surgeon, I tend to brainstorm ideas on how to improve the human condition, and Michael is able to refine the ideas and actually bring them to life.

Bottlang: I grew up in southern Germany, right next to the Swiss Alps. I have had an interest in science and engineering since I can remember, which led me to my biomechanical PhD efforts in Iowa, where I met Dr. Madey. Early on in our research efforts, we studied many topics, including bone healing and mitigating early-stage trauma. We both had an interest in brain injury beginning back in the early 2000’s, and we have re-visited it and researched it ever since. My initial interest was in healing brain injury, but we found that beyond a certain level of damage, modern medicine simply cannot restore the brain. That realization caused us to pivot to injury prevention. Our research, and that of prominent scientists around the world, indicates that rotational acceleration is the true culprit behind serious injury. The next natural question was, “how do we prevent rotational acceleration?” The system that is now known as WaveCel was only theorized, never intended to be a commercial product, until Trek Bicycling reached out having read our research and encouraged us to help make the cycling world safer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Madey: Before WaveCel was even established, we designed a series of physical experiments to demonstrate the harm of rotational acceleration, one of which was the “egg video” demonstration. That week, every single experiment visually confirmed everything we had been researching and already knew to be true, but even still, seeing it was miraculous. The idea is somewhat counterintuitive and when you see it in action, there is that “wow!” moment. I imagined the brain experiencing that level of damage and I could picture it. I knew we needed to find a way to make helmets better.

Bottlang: I trained an orthopedic surgeon on a human cadaveric specimen on the use of a bone plate we developed and tested with positive results. He shook my hand and said this is the best surgical invention he has worked with. That bone healing system is something we had worked on for years, and that moment made it clear that it would improve patient healing and make for a better overall treatment experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Madey: Michael Bottlang — he made good ideas great. When we began working together, pelvic bleeding after an accident was a huge issue. Roughly 50% of patients with pelvic fracture died from internal bleeding before receiving care. I had an idea of an invention to mitigate the bleeding and presented it to Michael. He ran with it, going through product iterations and testing until the product did its job. Now, that sling device is sold all over the world. If you take a ride in an ambulance, you will see one. The mortality rate for those incidents plummeted.

Bottlang: Steven Madey — he has an uncanny sense of research areas that have a large impact on injury prevention and treatment. One day he came to me and said “why don’t bone plates allow for motion? When humans were evolving, there was constant motion. The plate is stifling healing, not promoting it!” I was puzzled, but the beautiful thing about science is that objective data is king, and speculation means nothing. Everything must be tested; when we tested a plate that allowed for some motion, patients healed remarkably faster, and stronger.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Madey + Bottlang: Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. All our designs and inventions share this trait, quoted from Einstein. This guided us to derive simple solutions that work reliably to treat or prevent injuries.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?


Confidence — We took a risk in making a commercial helmet product, but we were confident that users care about safety, and that the technology works well.

Perseverance — The early days as a surgeon are truly grueling, but I never thought of quitting and it has paid off.

Humbleness — Everything we’ve done with WaveCel and our other endeavors requires collaboration, and when everyone can come to the table vulnerable and willing to learn, the outcomes are far better.


Evidence — We had a feeling that WaveCel’s impact testing results would be positive, but ultimately, the numbers have to do the talking. We ran thousands upon thousands of impact tests of all kinds, and still do to this day.

Persistency — When we initially decided to create WaveCel, we bought a machine from a third party, which turned out to be a disaster. I decided to design and build the production machines myself and with the help of the team, which was challenging and introduced plenty of roadblocks, but in the end, the machines worked.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration — No one is an expert in all fields. Recognizing limitations and allowing others to shine in their respective areas is key in teamwork.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

Madey + Bottlang: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is one of the leading workplace injuries as a result of slips, falls and strikes to the head by falling or moving objects. At WaveCel, we’re chasing the safest technology that’ll protect against brain injury. Our hard hats reduce incidence and severity of TBI and are designed for construction, engineering, manufacturing, aerospace, mining, gas, oil, forestry, and any other industry where a hard hat should be worn.

All hard hats are NOT created equal. In fact, the construction industry faces the highest number of occupational TBIs of any industry in the U.S., accounting for 25% of all work-related TBIs, and work-related TBI can cost anywhere from $600,000 to $1.8 million per case. Hard hats were originally designed to protect against skull fractures occurring from objects falling from above, but do not take into account the rotational force and impact from slips and falls, which are much more common and can carry a greater risk.

How do you think your technology can address this?

Madey + Bottlang: We have developed an innovative WaveCel helmet liner that acts as a rotational suspension, with a network of hundreds of interconnected shock absorbers attenuating impacts through three principal mechanisms: crumple, flex, and glide. Cells crumple to absorb linear forces, and, more importantly, also flex and glide to attenuate rotational forces.

Brain injury is caused primarily by a rotational force transmitted to the brain. Helmets with our dedicated “WaveCel” rotational suspension can drastically reduce the impact forces and the predicted risk of sustaining a concussion.

WaveCel first debuted in the sports industry in Treks cycling helmets and Burton ski and snowboard helmets. In sport helmets, WaveCel technology has been proven to absorb up to 73% more rotational force caused from a blow to the head and can reduce the predicted risk of a concussion by up to 98%.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Madey: My cousin got hit by a car when he was 8. He sustained a devastating brain injury and died at age 35. However, between age 8–35, he remained in a permanent coma. That was my first exposure to serious injury, but in my medical career, I see life-altering injuries on a daily basis, and it reminds me that anything can happen. Brain injury isn’t on everyone’s radar, until it is.

Bottlang: I have always had a passion for research and I look for interesting areas to explore. Early on in the exploration of brain injury, I saw textbooks with incorrect descriptions and visuals that were still being used in schools! That clicked in for me the idea that the world has a long way to go in terms of understanding brain injury. We still have much to learn, but in recent years, humanity has made strides.

How do you think this might change the world?

Madey: Our WaveCel technology drastically improves the protection of the brain during impacts and falls. This technology has already been proven out in bicycle and snow helmets, and we are just now introducing it into hard hats for heavy industries. Our journey will continue as long as there is the chance to prevent even more brain injuries. We are hoping to apply our rigorously tested WaveCel technology in countless ways in the future — protecting people from head injuries in every way possible. For even one person to be able to return to his/her family in normal condition after an accident is amazing beyond measure, but on the scale of the whole world, it is truly exciting.

Bottlang: My hope is that our efforts are part of the greater push toward safety worldwide, and that safety consciousness and safety innovations accelerate from this point. I hope we can play a small part in that.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Bottlang: No helmet can protect from all injuries; our goal is to design and manufacture the safest helmets possible. We have focused on brain injury because it is, in most cases, the most damaging and life-altering injury that a person can sustain.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. Understand the problem to be solved: This must go beyond accepted opinions about the problem, but must be based on evidence and data. Simply understanding the causes of brain injury took us 10+ years alone and involved in-house testing along with international data reconciliation from industry experts.
  2. Utilize the scientific method: To this day, our theories are tested by isolating a single variable and determining its objective performance, in an effort to investigate potential solutions to the problem we’re seeking to solve.
  3. Simplification: Once a working solution has been identified, simplify and refine the solution as much as possible, without over-simplifications. After first iterations, we always ask, can it be simpler? Often times, the solutions are obvious.
  4. Refine for commercialization: Products need to be produced, and the ability to do so matters, especially if you want to produce a large numbers of units to have a far-reaching positive impact. The most beautiful and wonderful design in the world will have no impact if it is not easily reproducible.
  5. Verify and test: Once a design is finalized, it needs to be tested rigorously for commercialization. We hope to bring objective data into style; companies should be able to show you the testing results and explain why they are testing that way.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Madey + Bottlang: The greatest job satisfaction comes from the knowledge that your work makes a real-world impact. If the impact reverberates to a large audience of people, you are making millions and possibly even billions of lives better. The most fulfilling aspect of the WaveCel project is when we receive emails letters, social media posts, about users who were in serious accidents and walked away without a concussion, or even a hint of brain injury. It is easy to get lost in the day to day of designing, testing, producing, but those moments of, “wow, we saved a life,” make us step back feel the true weight of a safety invention.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Madey + Bottlang: Our Children — because they are the most precious ones we have entrusted.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

Health Tech: Michael Bottlang On How WaveCel’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.