A tube that will simplify the feeding of babies in neonatal intensive care and a specialized seal for adult feeding tubes will be prototyped after winning manufacturing awards from Protolabs.

The awards, which give away thousands of dollars' worth of manufacturing services in lieu of cash, were granted to MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Maple Plain-based Protolabs — which uses automated milling, CDC and 3-D printing machines to manufacture custom prototypes and industrial parts — issued the health care grants as part of its annual Cool Idea Award contest, which seeks to support new product development.

While the company's awards usually focus on auto, aerospace, consumer and industrial sectors, this year's prototype grants, announced last week, focused on medical devices for the first time.

Protolabs — with $446 million in revenue and operations in Minnesota, North Carolina and internationally — "is proud to champion innovation in the medical field," said Protolabs CEO and President Vicki Holt. "These health care grants and the manufacturing services that come with them help important health-focused projects improve hundreds of thousands of lives each year."

The grant issued to MedStar in Baltimore will be used to make a new type of feeding tube for newborns in neonatal intensive care units (NICU). The invention was developed by a nurse and is a "gravity-feed syringe holder" that will simplify the feeding of sick newborns who require incubators and feeding tubes.

These babies now require a nurse to hold a syringe containing milk or formula above the infant's incubator. While the standard method lets liquid drip safely into a baby's feeding tube, it takes up a nurse's limited time.

With Protolabs' grant, the hospital hopes to manufacture the gravity-feed syringe prototype and free up nurses to reach more of their patients. The compact medical device can hold four sizes of syringes and is designed to be safely suspended from the top of the incubator or attached to an IV pole.

"Protolabs' assistance will help us move our gravity-feed syringe holder from concept to a working part of our neonatal practice," said Tiffany Morris, the neonatal registered nurse at MedStar who invented the device. "Our team hopes this small device can be a major step forward for NICU nursing and potentially for patient care in other settings."

Using Protolabs' manufacturing services, MedStar was able to employ 3-D printers to smooth the corners of the gravity-feed syringe, make sturdier syringe clips and add gaskets that protect both the infant and the incubator equipment, Morris said.

Stephen Kinsey, director of inventive services at MedStar, said he was proud of the award and of his hospital's partnership with Protolabs and a group called Cleveland Clinic Innovations, which works to foster new health-device breakthroughs at hospitals around the country.

Protolabs' second Cool Idea Award went to Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to help it complete development of a new leakproof seal designed for adult feeding tubes. The invention, designed with input from patients, is expected to improve the lives of 500,000 people who now rely on medical devices to receive food, hospital officials said.

The prototype seal was designed to protect the skin and the stomach through which a feeding tube is placed. The new device protects the skin by eliminating friction and by using a much wider seal around the feeding tube hole.

Patients said the two changes are important because feeding tubes often rub against the skin and cause irritation. They also can leak stomach acid, which leads to pain and infection.

"In the end, the device will be more comfortable, reduce irritation, and significantly improve long term quality of life," Cleveland Clinic said in a statement.

Longtime patient Andy Williams teamed up with Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Eric Blumrosen to work on the device. Williams' traditional feeding tubes leaked frequently, causing him repeated hospitalizations.

"The new leak stopper will let bedridden patients lead a more active life," Williams said. "Right now, for most people who experience leaks, it's the No. 1 thing on their mind all day. This invention will let them push it to the back of their minds and go on with normal activities."

The MedStar and Cleveland Clinic grants are the 39th and 40th Cool Idea grants Protolabs has made since 2011.

"Since the Cool Idea Award began, we've given away roughly $1.5 million in gratis services to recipients of the award. The award continues to make a tremendous impact" for startup firms because it provides financial relief and helps get products to market faster, said Protolabs spokeswoman Sarah Ekenberg.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725