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An eye for innovation: helping surgeons see more during spinal operations


With a unique disposable camera the size of a pinkie finger, Eric Buehlmann and his team pioneered a better—and easier—way for doctors to perform back procedures.


In 2016, Eric Buehlmann and his team at Johnson & Johnson MedTech were tasked with answering a big question: “How do we create technologies that enable surgeons to more easily perform complex spine procedures?”

Eric Buehlmann, Director of Research and Development, Spine, DePuy Synthes, part of Johnson & Johnson MedTech

At that time, surgeries targeting lumbar degenerative disease could be performed with minimally invasive techniques that benefited the patient but were challenging and time-consuming for the physician.

“When performing minimally invasive spine surgeries [MIS], surgeons operate through a tube, a bit like working through a straw with chopsticks,” recalls Buehlmann, Director of Research and Development, Spine, DePuy Synthes, part of Johnson & Johnson MedTech. “It’s great for the patient, as the access is less traumatic. For the surgeon, however, it’s difficult to learn, and only select surgeons perform this procedure through an MIS approach.”
Charged with the ambitious task of increasing patient access to life-changing MIS spinal surgeries, Buehlmann and his team of engineers, design surgeons, marketing specialists and manufacturing experts first outlined the drawbacks of how spinal surgery was performed at the time. They found that surgeons working through tubes are unable to fully visualize the surgery, because their hands and instruments block their view. To get better visibility, many surgeons use magnifying loops or boom-mounted microscopes. They also found that many other aspects of MIS surgery could be cumbersome and time-consuming.

“Ergonomically speaking, the physical discomfort of being hunched over the microscope for long periods of time creates a scenario whereby surgeons can be physically limited in how many surgeries they can perform each day or week and may limit how long they can perform such surgeries in their careers,” Buehlmann points out.

The Teligen system, a surgical technology platform that helps surgeons see clearly during Spinal surgery
The Teligen System: a surgical technology platform that helps surgeons see clearly during spinal surgery.

With such challenges in mind, Buehlmann and his team worked for six years developing the Teligen™ System: a surgical technology platform that enables surgeons to see clearly and work more efficiently and safely as they operate.

In the case of Teligen, “Surgeons still operate through a tube,” Buehlmann says, “but a disposable camera goes inside and can be slid up and down and rotated in all directions, offering multidirectional and enhanced visualization. It’s as though the surgeon’s eyes can be placed at the very bottom of the tube for an up-close and unobstructed view.”

Buehlmann recalls a day two years ago when he witnessed a surgeon’s unforgettable response to the new technology. “This was a very good surgeon, but not one who specialized in minimally invasive procedures,” he says. “When he realized the relative ease of use and capability of Teligen, a giant smile appeared on his face.”
Read on to learn more about Buehlmann—how he pivoted from structural engineering into the biotech field, what drives his commitment to developing innovative technologies that make surgery easier and the medical advancements he predicts will guide surgeons within a generation.


Growing up, what was the earliest clue you’d one day be working in the biotech engineering field?


My parents are European immigrants. In the winter, they ran a ski shop in northern California and in the summer they constructed and sold homes. So I was always working with tools and around things being fixed or built.

In high school, a college rep spoke to my class and mentioned engineering. In that moment, something clicked—I went down the road of structural engineering. But after 10 years in that field, frankly, I craved a fresh challenge. That’s when I got involved in medical device start-ups, which I found fascinating.

Over time, it led to the incredible opportunity with Johnson & Johnson. My wife and I relocated with our two children from the West Coast to Massachusetts so I could work out of the company’s Raynham office. It’s been a terrific experience for all of us.


What misconceptions do people have about engineers in the medical field?

Eric Buehlmann and part of the team behind the Teligen system, a surgical technology platform used for spinal surgery
Buehlmann (l) and some of the team behind Teligen: John DiVincenzo, Senior Group Manager of Teligen; Shane Fleshman, Systems Engineer; Zach Rideout, Systems Engineer


People think we like to work and solve problems individually. But our success relies on teamwork. The development of Teligen is a perfect example, since it grew out of a wonderful collaboration of our team working with surgeons to understand their needs.


What is your proudest moment in your work life?


Seeing the launch of Teligen. To see the project through and launch it into the market makes me incredibly proud of our team.


What do you love most about your job?


I really enjoy working directly with my team. Over the course of my career, my role has gone from being an individual contributor to coaching a team and enabling the team to achieve new things. It’s a great experience to have technical conversations as well as conversations about the business.

In this field you’ve got to be willing to work hard and not limit yourself. Think about it: We are impacting individual lives. When someone is in a time of crisis and a time of pain, the work we do helps that one person feel better.



What’s the most challenging part of your work?


As leaders, we have to make choices about what we’re going to prioritize. It can be a tough call deciding to de-prioritize one project in order to pursue another, especially when both projects will advance medical technologies and the business.


What are your passions outside of work?

Eric Buehlmann standing next to a car part
When he’s not in the lab, Buehlmann enjoys restoring old cars.


I’ve gotten into cooking and barbecuing lately, and I enjoy restoring old cars too. Right now, I’m doing a frame-up restoration of a 1982 Jeep. I like the experience of taking something old and restoring it to perfection or building something from scratch.


If we were talking 20 years from now, what innovations would you be excited to tell me about?


Robots today are relatively simplistic in terms of what they can do for spine surgery but are always getting better. I think we’ll see a lot of expansion of their capabilities and what they can offer in surgical procedures.

Also, augmented reality is definitely coming and will be a game changer. Rather than multiple monitors and related equipment being required in the operating room as with present-day surgeries, AR will allow the same visualization with a simple low-cost headset and will reduce the overall footprint of the surgical suite. This will enable better care for the patient, which is always the goal.


What advice would you give someone just starting out in your field?


I’d say that medical device development is challenging and also very rewarding. So with this in mind, you’ve got to be willing to work hard and not limit yourself. Think about it: We are impacting individual lives. When someone is in a time of crisis and a time of pain, the work we do helps that one person feel better. It’s incredibly rewarding.


Putting medical devices into practice

Where do healthcare providers learn to use Johnson & Johnson’s cutting-edge medical devices? At the Johnson & Johnson Institute.
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