As Michigan life sciences companies grow and seek to commercialize their innovations, the firms often face key constraints when it comes to access to capital in the state.
According to industry executives, that funding bottleneck is exacerbated in part by the lack of homegrown executive and scientific talent in communities across Michigan.
Dr. Tim Fischell, CEO and chief medical officer of Ablative Solutions Inc. in Kalamazoo, cites training more biomedical engineers as a significant need for the life sciences industry in West Michigan as it seeks to “build more of a biomedical startup corridor.”
“The bottom line is you’re creating a really substantial, young, bright, talented pool, especially if those young people have connectivity to Michigan and Western Michigan,” said Fischell, who founded Ablative to develop a catheter system to treat severe hypertension by deactivating nerves in renal arteries. “You create a whole seed organization to seed startups, to seed organizations and then to potentially create employment and small business.”
That’s why the move by Western Michigan University and Michigan State University to strengthen their offerings in biomedical engineering comes at an opportune time for the state’s life sciences industry.
With the launch of a new biomedical engineering department that began accepting graduate students this fall, MSU hopes to become a source of talent for the industry and further biotech innovation in the state.
A part of MSU’s College of Engineering, the Department of Biomedical Engineering aims to elevate the university’s role in supporting the biotech industry in Michigan and spin out new technologies into startup companies that commercialize research and innovation.
The department begins to address what Associate Chairman Mark Worden calls a growing need for biomedical engineers in Michigan’s expanding life sciences industry.
“There’s a lot of interest among prospective students at the graduate and undergraduate levels for study in this area,” Worden said. “We wanted to be able to meet that need and we wanted to be able to leverage scientific fundamental programs that we have here and move that into more applied area through technology development.”
According to Worden, the new biomedical engineering program “has a lot of potential for economic development” that’s built on MSU’s “very strong base” in fundamental biology.
“We haven’t exploited that in the area of technology development based on our strength in biology,” he said. “So we’re trying to put in the new department as a critical link from our strong science base to a portfolio of valuable commercial products that are based on the biology.”
Meanwhile in Kalamazoo, WMU will also debut its new medical engineering master’s program next year. The degree program, a collaboration of the private WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine and the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, will offer interdisciplinary courses primarily geared toward creating new medical devices and medical procedures.
The program will allow students to interface with doctors, nurses and business and regulatory experts, said Houssam Toutanji, dean of WMU’s College of Engineering.
Moreover, WMU also has tentative plans to launch an undergraduate program in biomedical engineering housed in the engineering school, Toutanji told MiBiz. That program, which could launch as soon as 2018, will concentrate on remotely operated robotic devices used for medical procedures.
“I think the presence of the medical school and the resources of the medical school combined with the resources of the engineering college, you’ll have a really unique program that will have a niche,” Toutanji said, citing the synergy that could be created between the medical school and the college of engineering.
For its part, MSU’s bioengineering department and the new $70 million Bioengineering Facility that opened late last month in East Lansing are designed to bring together research in various disciplines from across campus and translate “the fruit of research into application and improving medicine,” Worden said.
To that end, one course will train graduate students to work together across disciplines to develop needed technologies. The department is working with MSU to evaluate innovations and their market potential, Worden said.
A part of MSU’s College of Engineering, the Department of Biomedical Engineering offers doctoral and graduate degrees and may add an undergraduate degree “at some point in the future,” according to Worden.
“Right now, we’re recruiting faculty and we need a little larger number of faculty before we’re ready to take on a full-blown undergraduate program,” he said.
A handful of doctoral students started this fall and additional applicants are under review for admission the spring, Worden said.
The primary focus for MSU’s biomedical engineering department is recruiting faculty who will guide doctoral and graduate students in a self-supporting program. MSU wants to hire 25 to 30 faculty members for the department who advise students as they earn the 30 credit hours required for their degrees.
In September, MSU hired Christopher Contag from Stanford University to serve as chairperson of the department, as well as the inaugural director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering. Constag is now working to recruit peers and collaborators from across the country “to create a nucleus around this new bioengineering facility that we have to spin off technologies and to hopefully serve as a magnet for additional people from all over the country to be part of the excitement here.”
CREATING A ‘NEST’
Industry insiders say that more biomedical engineering and life science degree programs will help address some of the issues the sector faces in the state, namely the access to talent. As a talent pool of life science professionals gets established, it is more likely that Michigan companies can attract scientists, doctors and engineers from outside the region, said Fischell of Ablative Solutions.
A deeper talent pool could also help improve access to capital, he said.
“Take these young minds, keep them here or put them here so that they become Michiganders, teach them, and then create a talent pool and incubate talent in bioengineering,” Fischell said in October during a life sciences roundtable put on by MiBiz. “These guys have great ideas and they start companies.”
Fischell cites the University of Maryland where he and his father, Robert, have served on an advisory board for the Fischell Department of Bioengineering. Maryland developed a new $130 million facility, created an endowment and endowed partnerships, and in less than a decade has grown its academic program from 50 undergraduates and 15 doctoral students to 430 undergraduates and 83 doctoral students.
“This creates a nest and birthing process that allows for talent pool creation, innovation and can seed that,” Fischell said.
Fischell estimates MSU is probably six or seven years behind the University of Maryland, where there are probably a half dozen startup companies that have spun out of the work of professors and doctoral students. He would like to see the state of Michigan provide financial support for additional facilities and programs at other universities.
“If you’re talking about doing biomedical stuff in places like Kalamazoo, I think if the state wants to get behind this, one way to seed this is to do what they’re doing at Michigan State and do it at Western Michigan and create these pods of education, talent, entrepreneurship, ideas (and) faculty. But it requires funding,” Fischell said. “For the state, that just builds on (and) on. If we have these pods of talent in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Detroit and Kalamazoo, these pods grow up and then they begin to merge and you see overlap and cross-pollination between companies and you begin to build this infrastructure in the state of Michigan.”
MiBiz reporter John Wiegand contributed to this report.