Innovator Article

Entrepreneurship That Saves Lives
Biomedical Engineers Chart Lab-to-Market Path

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by Marianne Skoczek

Biomedical engineer Julia Choi wants to move life-saving technologies out of the research lab and into the world. Toward that goal, she joined more than 40 fellow scientists and engineers from universities across the U.S. at the inaugural Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy at UC Davis last summer. Participants, ranging from professors to first-year graduate students, brought their research in fields from cancer to cardiovascular medicine to neurology—and a thirst to see their work have a real-world impact.

The week-long intensive academy, presented by the Graduate School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurship (now the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship), integrates lectures, exercises and team projects to teach the building blocks of entrepreneurship.

The program was co-sponsored by the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering and supported by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation: Medical Commercialization Clinic; SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics; and Global CONNECT, a university–based consultancy focused on technology and innovation.

“Participants created the first iterations of business plans around their science—explicitly identifying the problems their work solves, for whom and with what value,” explained Professor Andrew Hargadon, who holds the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entre-preneurship and founded the institute.

“They met with customers, crafted financial projections and set the first milestones for moving their ideas to the market. They learned from 45 entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists, IP and corporate lawyers, and corporate R&D managers, engaging in more networking than they could do in a year working on their own.”

For Choi, most important was the realization that, “Innovation is about connecting, not inventing. Ideas—no matter how technically elegant—cannot grow without people connecting people.”

Lighting the Way

Kyriacos A. Athanasiou, chair of the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering, shared his experience commercializing more than 15 technologies out of his campus lab. His FDA-approved products include the first implant to treat small cartilage lesions in the lab and an instrument that allows the injection of drugs via the bone. “I am a proponent of university scientists working with colleagues from industry to translate mature research outcomes to products that save lives or improve the quality of life,” Athanasiou said.

University of Washington doctoral candidate Erik Feest is developing a targeted gene therapy to improve the quality of life for heart attack survivors. The academy, he said, brought home “the importance of considering the business plan and commercialization strategy early on in the R&D process.”

Choi’s academy team presented a low-cost mobile platform to rapidly detect infectious diseases from a single drop of blood. One team member recently launched a company to bring it to market. Choi, who earned her Ph.D. at UC Davis, is applying the academy’s lessons as an engineer and project leader at Hayward, Calif.–based Hantel Technologies, which helps Fortune 500 companies and start-ups bring their medical device ideas to market.

“The academy is one of the best investments an entrepreneurially inclined biomed engineer can make,” Choi said. “It provides guidance in—and helps catalyze—the process of translating your ideas to reality.”

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