Arthur Erdman never intended to launch the world's largest medical device design conference.

He came up with the idea after former University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof challenged faculty members to brainstorm conference ideas for the university's sesquicentennial in 2001.

"It was meant to be once," said Erdman, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the U's Medical Devices Center.

But, within a couple of hours of the close of the first Design of Medical Devices Conference, Erdman said three people came up to him and said: "When you do this next year, you should ..."

This year's conference, which runs Tuesday through Thursday, will be the 11th annual, bringing together leaders from academia, private industry and government to brainstorm ideas in policy, research and education that promote new device designs. More than 1,200 people are expected to attend, Erdman said. There will be 43 sessions and 153 speakers.

"I have been saying that it's the world's largest for years and in many venues," Erdman said. "And no one argues."

The conference, which will be held at the University Hotel Minneapolis, offers plenty of "gee whiz" features, including the ExploraDome, a portable 25-foot dome with hands-on medical devices. A "Hands on Hearts" exhibit will have a display of human hearts from organ donors, and the Simulation Technologies Suite will feature surgical and medical simulators.

There also will be an International Student Design Showcase, highlighting medical device designs by teams of undergraduate and graduate students as part of their course work. Outstanding student designs will compete for one of three cash prizes: $500, $300 and $200.

Student team designs include "The Solution to Postpartum Hemorrhage," "Babybeats: Fast, Reliable and Low-Cost Fetal Heart Rate Monitor" and "MAID: Magnet-Assisted Intubation Device."

Erdman said he was drawn to the idea of a design conference years ago because "I'm a design guy. We can apply our talents as engineers in so many, vital ways."

Medical device design, Erdman said, is "translational," meaning that there is a direct conduit from research at the U to product development. The fact that this area of the country is a hotbed of small and large medical device firms means the conference makes even more sense here.

"Even in the most basic research labs -- and there are hundreds around -- innovation happens," he said, pointing out that the University of Minnesota is Top 10 in the country in research expenditures, Top 10 in clinical research, as well as Top 10 in biomedical and basic science research.

In addition, the university features the Medical Devices Center, a program within the Institute for Engineering in Medicine, that fosters basic research, education and training and outreach related to medical devices. As part of the MDC, the university recruits device innovators from around the country to its Innovation Fellows Program -- a kind of medical device incubator.

The Design of Medical Devices Conference draws on all that energy and innovation and presents new ideas, Erdman said. Ideas to be presented and discussed at this year's conference include tissue engineering and research into devices that help treat diabetes. Another project gaining steam is virtual prototyping, providing researchers with 3-D models of both the human anatomy and medical devices to give a better sense of how they interact.

One company that has taken a strong interest in the university's work in that area is Boston Scientific Corp., Erdman said. The company also is one of the "premiere" sponsors of this year's conference, along with Medtronic Inc. and Saitama Prefecture of Japan.

Randy Schiestl, a vice president of research and development at Boston Scientific, said the conference does a terrific job of bringing a diverse group of people together to share ideas and forge new relationships.

"In today's global world of medical device development, no one company can stand alone and do it all," he said, adding that companies benefit from exposure to research being done at the U.

"The university is on the leading edge of many of these technologies," he said. "They also, as a university, are willing to be out there on that front end, taking risks."

Schiestl added: "The conference creates an environment of learning, collaboration and networking that brings people back year after year. It is the only conference of its type that is focused on the technology needed to improve medical devices. And Art has kept it a conference that is affordable and accessible, and we appreciate the chance to participate."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428