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Inspiring Innovation

Scott Augustine, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
January 12, 2015
The company:
Augustine Biomedical and
Design

The mission:
Finding creative solutions
for biomedical problems

You don’t need to go any further than the lobby of Scott Augustine’s Eden Prairie company to understand how he works. Straight ahead, the soaring, two-story wall is a monument to serious research, with 150 or so engraved plaques each representing an Augustine patent. Turn around, though, and check out the opposite wall: a riot of orange and blue six-foot, graffiti-like letters that spell “Biomedical and Design.” Together, these walls tell you this: Scott Augustine takes creativity seriously.

Augustine has been an entrepreneur ever since he can remember. Learning how to build things while living with his missionary parents in Tanzania gave him a taste for creating something from nothing. Working at a pontoon shop in high school taught him myriad details that come with running a small business. By college, he had created a company that sold decorative lighting.

It’s a game,” says Augustine.
 "But a high-stakes game.
 And that’s the fun of it.

Still, if you knew him after he graduated from the U with a bachelor of elective studies degree—possibly the broadest liberal arts degree you can get—and right after he finished Medical School, you might not have pegged him as an entrepreneur; medical studies didn’t leave much time for invention. But Augustine has never met a problem he hasn’t tried to solve, and when he joined the Navy for his anesthesiology residency, he couldn’t resist trying to fix one of the surgical suite’s most troubling problems: how to keep patients warm during surgery.

“Under anesthesia, you can’t control your body temperature,” he says. “With air conditioning, patients’ teeth would be chattering just violently. Everyone in surgery is hypothermic. We had four or five ways of keeping patients warm, but they still got cold in the recovery room. You had to ask why. I said, ‘I’m going to figure this out.’”

And so he did. Once out of the Navy, he started his medical practice in Kansas City. In his free time, and with the help of his father—who had relocated from Minnesota—he set up shop in his garage, building, re-tooling, and re-designing until he perfected a warming system that used forced air to deliver heat to a blanket draped over the surgical patient. He called his company Augustine Medical and he called his invention Bair Hugger. It went on the market in 1988 and created a revolution; by 2004, when he sold the company, Bair Hugger had literally changed surgical practice. It is used so widely, that if you have surgery in any hospital today, it’s a near certainty that you will wake up in the recovery room nestled under a Bair Hugger blanket.

It’s not perfect, however. For years, Augustine—who had now quit his medical practice to devote full time to his company—puzzled about why patients who have joint-replacement surgery have higher rates of infection than do patients who undergo soft-tissue procedures. Why would that be?

He took the question with him when he started Augustine Biomedical and Design in 2006. He and his team pursued the answer as they do with every potential invention: they built prototypes, including, in this case, an operating room set up in a warehouse, with its own ventilation system.

In the end, the answer was simple: hot air rises. What it means in practice is that when Bair Hugger’s forced-air system captures bacteria particles below the surgical table, it then lifts them onto the sterile field, where they find an exceptionally welcoming breeding ground on the metal implants of patients who have just had their knees or hips replaced. As Augustine markets his new system—called Hot Dog—he puts himself in the interesting position of competing with his own old invention, the Bair Hugger, now owned by 3M.

“It’s a game, but a high-stakes game,” he says. “That’s the fun of it. We’re not a flower stand on the corner. We’re playing with the big kids here.”

What he says:

“You get into these things and you don’t know where they’ll go; that’s the life of an entrepreneur. If you think you’re going to have all the answers before you take the first step, well guess again—you’ll never take the first step. You can’t possibly have all the answers, so you have to be flexible and adjust as you go.”

“Our secret to success is prototyping. With a prototype, you cook it, play with it, see if it works, use it, see if it quits working. We keep doing iterations. When it doesn’t work anymore, we back up, and go in different directions.”