The Spirit of Entrepreneurship at WPI

The Spirit of Entrepreneurship at WPI

WPI professor Chris Lambert, holding a prototype of a renal failure detection device, and BEI director Grant McGimpsey are the founders of Active Surface Technologies Inc., which aims to market the handheld technology / photo by Richard Howard

Imagine a handheld device that lets clinicians detect early signs of renal failure, while there is still time to save a patient’s kidneys. Now imagine that the same device can quickly give doctors the information they need to make the best possible decisions about diagnostic tests and treatment.

Two WPI researchers have done more than imagine such technology; they’ve developed a working prototype and started their own company, Active Surface Technologies Inc. (ASTI), to help make the idea a reality.

These are heady days at the university as faculty work vigorously to transform the fruits of their research into state-of-the-art entrepreneurial ventures. In fact, across WPI’s disciplines, well-trained, creative minds turn toward taking inventions from laboratory to market.

Hitting them out of the (Gateway) park

Through WPI’s Bioengineering Institute (BEI), the life sciences are playing a major role in this dramatic trend. In the past two years alone, the multidisciplinary institute has seen the launch of two companies from its ranks of faculty researchers. BEI recently took up residence in the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, which is fast becoming a bustling hub of life sciences R&D.

“BEI acts as a catalyst for taking biomedical innovations from the lab bench to the bedside,” says Grant McGimpsey, BEI director and co-founder of ASTI. “We identify problems, R&D funding opportunities, and WPI faculty who can team up to address challenges with inventions that, in turn, may have commercial value. We encourage faculty to enter into entrepreneurial ventures, and we seek partners in the private sector who can help BEI convert its growing medical technology portfolio into new products.”

WPI professors and ImagiSonix co-founders, from left, Peder Pedersen and Jim Duckworth have created a portable telemedicine system, with the help of research assistant Philip Cordeiro '97 (MA '06) / photo by Tony Rinaldo

At the BEI Center for Untethered Healthcare, for example, faculty collaborate across disciplines—chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, and biomedical engineering. It is from this center that ASTI and another medical device venture were recently launched.

ASTI was co-founded in 2005 by McGimpsey and BEI associate research professor Christopher Lambert, who serves as chief technology officer. The company is developing a battery-operated handheld device that takes highly accurate measurements of renal disease biomarkers such as potassium, urea, and creatinine, and executes two measurement techniques simultaneously in a re-usable sensor module. The combination of dual detection and re-usable format allows continuous self-calibration, giving the ASTI instrument a significant advantage over single-use instruments currently in the marketplace.

The second venture resulting from BEI, ImagiSonix, was incorporated in 2006 by Peder Pedersen, professor of electrical and computer engineering, James Duckworth, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Thomas Szabo, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. Pedersen serves as president, Duckworth as interim CEO, and Szabo as CTO.

ImagiSonix offers a portable, battery-powered telemedicine system with ultrasound imaging that can withstand enough heat, dust, and jostling to work under harsh conditions in remote areas, as well as in emergency transport vehicles. Its battery operates for a full day without recharging, and its wireless voice and video communication features allow specialists at major hospitals to assist with diagnosis in real time.

“This will be a reconfigurable ultrasound system,” Pedersen says. “The components are not permanently connected to one another in a box, but instead the system is made up of an embedded computer, a power source, ultrasound front end display, physiological sensors, an examination camera, and a transducer. This allows us to custom configure the system. For example, it can be integrated into a pre-wired vest, or incorporated into a medical bag.”

Development of the ImagiSonix ultrasound imaging system was funded in part by the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technologies Research Center (TATRC); the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, which oversees TATRC, supported early R&D on the ASTI sensor device. Both start-ups are now seeking venture funding.

Identifying diverse markets

“As we seek venture funding, ASTI is focusing on the civilian market,” says McGimpsey. Small wonder. The renal dialysis and transplantation market, for example, amounts to $20 billion in the United States alone, and is predicted to exceed $1 trillion worldwide over the next decade.

Because the number of dialysis treatments has been increasing by 9 percent annually, ASTI seeks entrée into hospitals, dialysis clinics, and doctors’ offices, where easily interpretable results will be obtained in minutes to inform decisions on further diagnostic tests or treatment. ASTI founders also see promise in the DNA, biomarkers, and drug discovery markets.

“Our current goal is to get a prototype onto someone’s desk in a company that can take it to a commercial scale,” says McGimpsey, who notes that ASTI revenues would flow from licenses with strategic partners, and from royalties based on unit sales.

ImagiSonix sets itself apart from the competition with its ability to function under rugged field conditions. Further, because the system will include a new form of 3D imaging that captures all the image information from a given region of the body, it will allow remotely located medical experts to view and interpret the field-based images as they emerge. This feature also enables medical experts to guide the technician as the scan is conducted, thereby reducing the need for highly trained field personnel.

The ImagiSonix on-the-fly ultrasound imaging system could save lives during medical transport—whether in helicopters or ambulances. To prove this point, the start-up’s team recently began working with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, testing the system in helicopters. Another field study with the Center for Pre-Hospital Care in Loma Linda, Calif., slated for this fall, will evaluate the imaging system’s usefulness in disaster and rescue situations.

Mike Manning, WPI's Director of Technology Transfer / photo by Tony Rinaldo

Tapping WPI resources

While the ImagiSonix team prepares to meet with angel investors, Pedersen admits with a wry grin that “starting a company was the furthest thing from our minds when we began this research almost four years ago.”

But when it came time to interpret their inventions as products, the scientists knew where to turn. Pedersen and Duckworth tapped the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which, along with the university’s Technology Transfer Office, works to strengthen and support efforts on the part of faculty and students to turn ideas into patents, business plans, and investor-worthy presentations. And McRae (Mac) Banks, head of the Department of Management, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, and CEI director, referred ImagiSonix to visiting professor of entrepreneurship Jerry Schaufeld.

“I was very excited to work with Peder and Jim,” says Schaufeld, who helps emerging executives identify potential markets and clarify their corporate vision. “I screen deals with three different angel investor groups. Because of that, I have ideas about how to improve the probability of success in these projects. I play the role of wearing the investor’s ‘green visor’ focus on the issues of creating sustainable propositions.”

This work, says Schaufeld, “is a natural extension of the management department at WPI. We are all encouraged to reach out to the faculty and assist in developing spin-off companies.”

But, says Banks, when it comes time to commercialize technology, one of the most difficult problems an engineering or science researcher faces is understanding the market and the business value.

“They love the technology or the science, as they should,” he says. “The problem is that potential investors want to know how they will make money on the dollars they spend, and researchers are almost never able to answer that question. But we can. We have a few faculty members, graduate students, even undergraduate students who do it all the time.” (And, in time, Banks expects to increase that capacity with a newly proposed MS in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship.)

Duckworth notes that through BEI he and his ImagiSonix colleagues pitched their business ideas to a number of people. Those presentations, made in August 2006, led to the formation of the executive team.

When ASTI co-founders were preparing their business proposal, WPI technology transfer director Michael Manning helped get them in front of business groups, including the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center, a UMassaffiliated organization.

“Both ASTI and ImagiSonix have gone through the ‘pitch’ process, which has yielded them many viable leads for financing, recruitment, and strategic planning,” he says. “An important direct result is that these university researchers have become adept at promoting and conducting business-focused overtures to prospective partners.”

Notes Pedersen, “I could not imagine starting a company alone—too much stress, and too little fun. Being an entrepreneur is exciting, for the most part. Not knowing where this is going? That’s an adventure!”


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Last modified: October 12, 2007 14:33:37