Lia Winter ’13: Entrepreneur Develops Innovative Tool for Orthopedic Surgery

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Lia Winter ’13: Entrepreneur Develops Innovative Tool for Orthopedic Surgery

Lia Winter sprinted down the soccer field on a breakaway, heading for the goal. Then she felt a pap in the back of her leg and a stabbing pain that stopped her in her tracks. The junior limped off the field during the preseason game at Shady Side Academy. She worried her season was over, especially once she learned it was a hamstring tear, an injury that typically requires surgery.

She went to see Dr. James Bradley, a family friend and the orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead of surgery, he treated her with an innovative approach that involves taking a patient’s own blood, spinning it and injecting platelet-rich plasma into the injured tissue. Winter recovered so well that she was able to play the last few games of the regular soccer season and go to the playoffs. 

“I knew then I wanted to be a biomedical engineer. I wanted to be able to develop tools and products and technologies to help athletes recover from sports injuries,” she said. 

Another family sports injury deepened that conviction. Her mother, Shelley, tore her anterior cruciate ligament or ACL while playing volleyball. She underwent knee surgery, but because of problems with the graft and stitching, she had to have a second surgery 10 days later. Instead of a six-month recovery, hers dragged on for almost three years.

Combining her love of sports and science with her own experiences, Winter went on to become a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur. Through her company, Winter Innovations, she invented the EasyWhip, a patented new surgical needle designed to make stitching easier for orthopedic surgeons. In 2021, the company crossed a major hurdle when it received FDA clearance for the product. In January of 2022, surgeons began using EasyWhip in the operating room.

The two-part needle system gives surgeons both accuracy and efficiency. When the parts are separate, the device functions as a straight suture. When the two ends are connected, they form a suture loop. Allowing surgeons to alternate between the two means they can make more secure stitches and work faster.

“This enables some new stitching patterns,” Winter said. “We have shown that it reduces time in the operating room and can improve the security of the stitch to maximize the chances for a successful repair.”

So far this year, 10 surgeons in eight states, including Pittsburgh orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Rytel, have started using EasyWhip.

“I mostly use it for preparing ACL grafts,” Dr. Rytel said. “So it just simplifies a step – the needle can be separated into two needles and that makes it easier to reset your position for the next passage of a needle. It’s a simple idea that works.” 

Lia Winter '13

Of all the innovations in surgery, the surgical needle has not undergone much change in recent years. “A lot of the technology is focused on suture design and the type of anchors that we use

to hold tissue to bone,” said Dr. Rytel, whose children went to Shady Side. “But nobody has really tried to innovate the needle. It sort of was a given that the needle had reached its apex of design, but Lia found a way to modify it that just made something a little bit easier to use.”

Surgeons become attached to a specific needle the way baseball players favor a particular bat. “We tend to find something that works and then stick with it,” Dr. Rytel said. “Something new requires a learning curve, so it is challenging to break in with a new product.”

Whether it was in a science lab or on the sports field, Winter was never afraid of a challenge.

At Shady Side, she was a standout math and science student. She credits Stephanie Montemurro, her biology teacher, with opening her mind to the possibilities of engineering. Montemurro nominated Winter for the University of Pittsburgh Summer Academy, where she

spent the summer doing research at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Institute. Her math teachers – Frank McCarthy and Sue Whitney – instilled in her a love of that subject, providing a solid foundation for engineering school.

Winter played three sports, and her senior year, she was captain of the soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse teams. She was also a student ambassador to the athletic department, working with then-Athletic Director Gene Deal.

“The rigor of SSA academics combined with highly competitive sports programs taught me important skills like time management, a strong work ethic and the ability to inspire team members,” she said.

Her mother, Shelley, said her daughter was always a go getter. “She was never happy with the status quo. She was always, always looking for the next thing, the next accomplishment.”

After SSA, Winter attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in bioengineering and biomedical engineering. Pitt did not have a women’s lacrosse team at that time, but they had a highly competitive club team, and she became the captain. Her younger sister, Tori Winter ’15, studied engineering at Pitt too and joined Lia on the lacrosse team.  

Lia Winter '13

Winter invented the EasyWhip as part of her senior design project, a yearlong course that challenged students to fulfill an unmet medical need. She had just come off a summer internship where she did research on orthopedic products, including stitching needles.

One day in the lab, she spent five hours using various needles to stitch tendons and found the process tedious and frustrating. “I started watching surgeons and they were struggling with the needles too.” She knew then that the stitching needle was a product ripe for innovation and developed a handmade prototype of the EasyWhip.

In 2017, Winter began the dual MBA and M.S. biomedical engineering degree program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she received a full ride through an Ergen Fellowship donated by Charles Ergen, the founder of Dish Network.

During the second year of her graduate program, she co-founded Winter Innovations with her boyfriend, Preston Dishner, who was also getting his MBA and M.S. in business analytics at UT. The two complemented each other – she had the engineering expertise, and he had the supply chain and business analytics expertise.

In addition to heavy course loads, the two would travel around the country and to Canada, entering Shark Tank-style pitch competitions at universities. As Winter became more confident about pitching, often drawing on her own personal experiences, the wins stacked up. By the end of the year, they had won nearly $100,000.

Dishner watched Winter pitch in front of audiences as small as four people to auditoriums full of 7,000 people. “She does a great job of storytelling. She’s able to tell a story and connect with people in a meaningful way and not come across as pushy. She comes across as very authentic,” he said.

No longer competing on the lacrosse field, Winter said, pitching “became my new way to compete.” The pitch competition prize money enabled them to start manufacturing the EasyWhip and apply for patents.

The pitch competition prize money enabled them to start manufacturing the EasyWhip and apply for patents.

As her grad school career drew to an end, Winter was at a career crossroads. Following her summer internship at Dish Network, the company had offered her a full-time job after graduation. It promised job security, a good paycheck and an interesting career. On the other hand, she could take the much riskier, less lucrative but more fulfilling path of starting her own company and rolling out her invention.

Winter and Dishner knew it would be a big leap to go from student entrepreneurs to full-time managers of their company. In search of mentoring and support, they applied to the ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program. They decided that if they were accepted, they would give the company their best shot. A denial would be their signal to pursue corporate careers post-graduation.

The accelerator program only had funding for two startups, and they didn’t make the cut. That should have settled the matter – she would take the corporate route. But Winter was devastated not to get into the accelerator. It was the same sting of disappointment she felt after she injured her hamstring during that soccer game at Shady Side. 

“It made me realize how truly passionate I had become about my company and how much I really wanted to see EasyWhip through to success,” she said.

The next day, Winter called the head of the accelerator and asked him if they could participate in the program without the funding. They had raised enough through pitch competitions. He agreed. Elated, Winter and Dishner took their finals early, packed up a U-Haul and traveled to Memphis. A few days later, they started in the accelerator program. Through participating with several accelerators, they attracted investors. Winter Innovations received a quarter million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation in May of 2021.

“I would say Lia’s one of the strongest people I know,” Dishner said. “She never gives up. She always strives for excellence. It’s kind of intoxicating. She helps me want to be better because she’s always pushing to be better all the time. The people who work with us strive to be better.”

“It’s been a really great experience, building a company with my significant other,” Winter said.

Besides the normal trials of a startup, they also launched their company during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were supply chain issues. As the pandemic slowed down production, Dishner had a good marketing idea – add a little flair to the packaging with needle-based puns on each unit. “A blunt needle is pointless” reads one word play on the package.

“We say it’s like the Dove Chocolate of medical device packaging,” Winter said.

Eventually they plan to develop additional products, but only after they have successfully launched EasyWhip.

Winter Innovations currently works with 15 part-time contractors and plans to hire full-time sales employees in 2023 to scale commercialization of the EasyWhip. For now, Winter and Dishner are a two-person sales force, traveling around the country, pitching their idea to surgeons, hospital administrators and investors.

Whenever Winter gives a pitch, a person often will come up to her afterward and tell her how they had a revision surgery because of stitching that didn’t hold. That brings her back to her own hamstring tear on the soccer field at Shady Side and her mother’s surgeries. She remembers how devastated she was not being able to play soccer. “I have a lot of empathy for people needing surgery,” she said.

It’s that empathy – and incredible drive – that motivates Winter to get her invention into the hands of more orthopedic surgeons.