Small Innovation, Major Impact: Shrinking a Heart Valve to the Size of a Dime

Abbott engineer and technical manager Rick Olson didn't think miniaturizing valves would be his passion — but his work at Abbott helped him discover how rewarding patient-focused engineering can be.

CHANGING LIVES     |    Oct. 29, 2018

Inspiration comes in many forms for people who seek a career in biomedical engineering: While some enter the field because of a personal connection with a particular disease, just as many pursue the path for its incredible challenges and sense of accomplishment that come with helping others live their fullest lives.

A person who sought out those challenges is Abbott engineer Rick Olson, a divisional vice president and leader of product development in the company's structural heart business. Olson's team recently saw their work recognized by FDA approval of a pediatric mechanical heart valve — the smallest in the world — specifically designed to treat heart defects in very young patients, including newborns. The dime-sized device can save lives.

Though small valves already existed, they often weren’t small enough for really tiny hearts, such as in a newborn. The team's challenge was to shrink existing mechanical heart valves by 2 millimeters — a challenge that, once overcome, became one of the most fulfilling experiences of Olson's career.

Solving for the complexities of medical devices

When Olson first entered the engineering world, he didn't anticipate he would be developing medical devices. It was the pursuit of a challenging and rewarding career that led Olson to medical technology, and eventually toward the small-scale mechanical puzzles inherent in devices like coronary stents and balloon catheters.

"It's nice to see the end product of what you've worked on and how it impacts peoples' lives," Olson says.

He adds, "I kind of got hooked on it." It was that type of satisfaction that led Olson to work at Abbott's structural heart business, where he joined a vast team of professionals with a passion just like his. It was only with sufficient resources and in this special environment where he could have imagined completing a project as ambitious as the world's smallest mechanical heart valve.

Developing a valve that fits takes a team

Artificial heart valves are deceptively complex devices. They're required to act non-stop for years on end without failing, and they have to do it the harsh, constantly moving environment of a human body that has a natural inclination to reject foreign objects. Designing a valve that can function properly at only 15 millimeters in size was an incredible feat.

It wasn't enough to simply take existing valve designs and shrink them, as this creates blood flow issues that cause more problems than they fix.

"It's one thing to make something small, but it also has to be effective," Olson says. "Everything in the body revolves around blood flow ... so it was about balancing how small we can make it while still having it be large enough to work effectively. Two millimeters might not seem like much, but when it comes to a child's heart, that can be all the space in the world."

For Rick Olson and his team at Abbott, the incredible challenge of creating the world's smallest mechanical heart valve was just one more reason to try to do it.

Achieving success for patients and researchers

Biomedical engineers get the satisfaction of seeing their projects affect real people's lives, but many people don’t understand how much dedication and effort is necessary to get there. For Olson, the difficulty of the 15 millimeter valve project is one of the things that has made success so sweet: "It's literally— literally — saving babies' lives. That takes the whole satisfaction of working on medical devices to the next level."

With a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from University of Wisconsin–Madison, Olson knows that getting into the biomedical field doesn't necessarily require a biomedical engineering degree. The best way to break into the field, he says, is to build your foundational engineering skills, which are always among the most valued for any applicant.

"Don't focus on the job you think you want, focus on the passion behind the engineering," Olson says. "If you have strong engineering skills, you'll find a way to utilize them in any job. You need to be a strong engineer first and foremost."

Realizing Abbott's vision

With a global network of widely trained experts and a company committed to innovation and diverse talent, Abbott is the perfect place for a multifaceted team to conquer projects like the world's smallest mechanical heart valve.

"Today, we're talking about baby-sized mechanical heart valves, but with the breadth of programs that are available throughout Abbott, you can go on to anything. We have diabetes, neuromodulation, cardiac arrhythmia — we have huge diversity in both work and people."

Abbott has changed the lives of so many of its employees through a commitment to finding the right role, or series of roles, for each person. It's not just about giving researchers a sense of fulfillment, but also acting upon the belief that truly ambitious research projects require the level of commitment that only true personal investment can bring.

The pediatric mechanical heart valve is already saving lives, but there are dozens of other, similarly ambitious projects in the pipeline at Abbott. Check out our careers page to see where you might find a position that fits your dedication and expertise.