Simple ideas and curiosity, Dr. Tara Johnsons says, have the power to transform a child’s quality of life.
For Johnson, innovation ignites during conversations with families she sees in her clinical practice as a developmental neurologist. She works with patients at Arkansas Children’s who have complex conditions and disabilities, ranging from epilepsy and cerebral palsy to ADHD and learning challenges.
“I enjoy treating patients, but I also began to realize early in my career that I wanted to help them fix everyday problems in novel ways,” she says. “You can’t do that through clinical practice alone. You have to do that through research.”
Johnson is one of the scientists at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute helping build a collaborative culture that nurtures innovation. The team clears the way so new solutions addressing unmet needs can end up directly helping patients faster.
Their work happens at the Arkansas Children’s Innovation Center (ACIC), a collaboration with Arkansas entrepreneurial support organizations and international research initiatives. The program focuses on harvesting and developing innovative ideas from Arkansas Children’s team members and UAMS faculty who work on Arkansas Children’s campuses.
Their ideas become real solutions with the help of organizations including the Conductor, HealthTech Arkansas, Innovation Junkie, Startup Junkie, the Venture Center, and the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.
“Every day at Arkansas Children’s, clinical leaders and healthcare professionals make critical decisions concerning the treatment of infants, children and adolescents,” said Marcy Doderer, President and CEO of Arkansas Children’s. “Through ACIC, these discoveries and innovations have a place to incubate and grow into impactful healthcare solutions.”
This has been Tara Johnson’s experience. She joined Arkansas Children’s after delivering a presentation about a cup she developed at a national neurology conference, putting her on the radar of leaders recruiting new faculty for Arkansas’ only pediatric health system.
“We realized quickly that though our concept was designed for kids with a specific disability, it has so many more applications,” Johnson says. “It works by controlling the size of the sip someone takes, so the liquid doesn’t go down the wrong pipe. The cup can help the elderly and people who face feeding challenges and other populations.”
Intrigued by the connection between Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and collaborating experts in the state’s innovation community, Johnson developed a lab featuring a small machine shop to produce technologies. A 3D printer completes the set-up and helps refine models of the innovations she pioneers.
Johnson believes innovation thrives when creators reach across disciplines and institutions to work collaboratively. She has served as a clinical and engineering mentor with university students in Arkansas, creating a dynamic hand splint that helps children with cerebral palsy open their hands and improve their grasps. It gives these children more flexibility and increases their range of motion.
This innovation, a senior project for the students, placed in a business planning competition, and now has a provisional patent. Johnson looks forward to testing the splint with patients.
“Innovation lets us break down silos,” she said. “Combining experiences of the clinician and patients with a completely different set of problem-solving skills such as business executives’ vision and students’ curiosity, leads to even better solutions.”