Engineering the Pain Out of Post-Surgery Recovery

Al Prescott likes to say he went to WPI to study chemical engineering "because my father was a mechanical engineer". His choice of schools was no act of familial rebellion, though; instead it was the result of hands-on tradesmen replying, when asked what schools they recommended, "all the best engineers-come out of WPI."

Prescott, an engaging, fit, thirty-something who spends his spare time hunting, fishing, and competing in such singularly difficult events as triathlons, is the president of Crescent Innovations, Inc., an early-stage entrepreneurial enterprise currently developing post-surgical pain control products. Crescent, located in a sprawling brick building in the heart of the Norton industrial complex in Worcester, Mass., is a start-up in every sense of the word. Sharing space with Biomedical Research Models (BRM), Crescent has exactly one employee - Prescott - but draws upon the resources of BRM and a number of graduate students and researchers "between jobs". With four patents pending, even more of the company's real assets, however, reside in Prescott's head, the result of years of experience in other jobs and other companies.

After graduating from WPI in 1990 with a BS in chemical engineering, followed later by an MS from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Prescott landed a job as a process engineer at specialty chemical and material giant, W.R. Grace, making a gasketing compound that was used to seal about 90% of the world's cans. It was while at Grace that Prescott got a glimpse of the medical device world, at a product made by a small division within Grace that was used to scrub carbon dioxide from surgical patients' breath.

That tiny toehold in medical devices enabled Prescott to get a job in 1994 at generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Copley Pharmaceutical where he became a senior project engineer, helping to bring products to market. Prescott left Copley in '96 for a short stint as a biotech consultant helping companies make the transition from the R&D phase to commercialization. That led to employment in 1998 as a senior engineer at Anika Therapeutics, a manufacturer of therapeutic products for bone and soft tissue.

At Anika, Prescott could no longer resist the siren call to entrepreneurship. "If, as an individual contributor (to any company), you start to say to yourself, 'you know, if I was running this show, here's how I'd structure this whole company', the question becomes how long can you stand working for someone else." For Prescott, that is not a put-down of whomever you're working for, but rather an indication of a time in your career when you say "hey, now it's MY turn."

"By the year 2000, I finally couldn't resist the call and I decided I had to make a move," Prescott said. Bolstered by his experience at Anika with tissue and bone therapeutics, Prescott turned his sights on innovative pain control products, and primarily something called temporomandibular joint disorder, or chronic jaw pain. "One of the things you can allow yourself to do as an entrepreneur is work on issues that have personal relevance," he commented, "provided these issues can sustain themselves commercially."

Prescott got interested in chronic jaw pain because he has several relatives who suffer from it. A little research quickly showed him that over 7 million Americans suffer from some sort of jaw pain and of those, over 2 million have chronic symptoms ranging from simple pain to migraine headaches, even lockjaw. Current treatments include common anti-inflammatories such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or even muscle relaxants to steroids and ultimately, surgery.

As an entrepreneur, Prescott has wondered about pain control which can be delivered in such a way that relief can be provided when and where needed, over an extended period of time if necessary, without tubes and drip bags. His solution is a jelly-like, polymer-based drug delivery gel that mimics the body's own secretions and which can be injected right to the pain site where it delivers pain relief for however long it's needed. The substance breaks down naturally and is flushed out of the body, enabling post-operative pain relief without the need for intrusive catheters, ports, tubes and other conventional devices commonly used to help relieve pain.

Currently under development, Prescott's gel holds promise for pain relief in a wide range of applications. He is simultaneously researching its use as a veterinary product, partly as a way to speed testing and eliminate stumbling blocks prior to human trials. In the meantime, he is running Crescent Innovations as a lean and nimble operation, looking for opportunities to partner with other biomedical companies as a way to open up possibilities for other products and the means to produce them.

WPI: Both teacher and tool

One of the first things Prescott realized he needed when he started Crescent Innovations was more knowledge. "I had to figure out how to marshal the skill sets to be able to do this," he said. "That was when I got involved with WPI again, through the Venture Forum and the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation."

Prescott credits WPI with educating him well, both through the faculty and through interaction with other students. "One of the defining moments in my undergraduate education came when I delivered an incredibly poor performance on my IQP," he remembers. "I didn't step forward to lead, nor did I contribute well. The result was we just stumbled along. I spent a lot of time after that project trying to understand my shortcomings-to make sure a project like that would never stagnate and die again." As a result of that experience, Prescott was determined to do better with his senior MQP. "That IQP experience taught me how to define my role on a project," he added. "Consequently, on my MQP I made a concerted effort to take a leadership role. That project, with the guidance of our project advisor, went very well."

Prescott has been involved since 2000 in WPI's Venture Forum, which he considers very useful for networking. One tip he has for students, recent graduates, and entrepreneurs alike is to get involved in events like the Venture Forum. "These are great opportunities to learn how and when to adopt different language skills so you can talk to both technical people in your field and the business people you need to make your company successful." Without these skills, even the very best ideas will die on the vine if they cannot be communicated clearly and understood by the people who can help bring them to fruition.

Prescott also suggests students and budding entrepreneurs get an introduction to accounting, understanding corporate structure, and how to put together a marketing plan. In his estimation, a well-rounded entrepreneur is a successful entrepreneur. And he cautions entrepreneurs not to fall in love with their ideas. "Fall in love with a problem, and let that determine the solution-ideas can change," he observed. So often, entrepreneurs have an elegant solution in search of a problem.

Finally, he urges students and alumni to give back whenever and however they can. "Right now I may not have the money (to make a significant contribution), but I have some time and my experience to give back," he stated. As a result, Prescott has talked with senior chemical engineering students and taken part in several Dinners with Entrepreneurs with plans to do more.

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