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Biomedical engineers mean business
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Biomedical engineers mean business
At U.Va., professor makes it his business to teach business to biomedical engineering students.
This is just one of many ways that U.Va. has put itself in the forefront of biomedical engineering education.
Jen-shih Lee (above right and below center) instructing students in his Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship class.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Jen-shih Lee (above right and below center) instructing students in his Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship class.

By Charlotte Crystal

So far, George Gillies hasn’t made a dime from his invention — a system that magnetically guides catheters along the natural pathways of the brain so that surgeons don’t have to drill through brain tissue to reach deeply embedded tumors.

Perhaps one day, he and his three co-inventors will see a financial reward from the 18 years they’ve spent developing this revolutionary system, which may also have applications in cardiology and ophthalmology.

In the meantime, Gillies told the students in Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship, his reward for his efforts is in knowing he has helped improve the surgical outcomes for brain tumor patients fighting for their lives. And from a technical point of view, it’s been an exciting challenge.

“The best part of the experience has been to see the invention go from a ball bearing and a bowl of gelatin to an apparatus on the order of a CT scanner,” Gillies said.

Offered for the first time this semester, the interdisciplinary course offers instruction in two areas, biotechnology analysis and entrepreneurship, according to its creator, Jen-shih Lee, U.Va. professor of biomedical engineering.

“Some biomedical engineering courses expose students to FDA regulations, [University of] Michigan offers students some career development, [Johns] Hopkins talks about [Small Business Innovation and Research] grants, but no one has the depth that we have, from invention to business launch,” Lee said.
Fourteen undergraduates and two graduate students have signed up for the class.

Lee polled his students and was surprised to find that most planned to pursue graduate studies, whether in biomedical engineering, medicine or law. But after a decade or so of school and business experience, most of his students — 60 percent — wanted to start their own companies.

“This class fits into their long-term plans,” he said.

So far, no graduates of U.Va.’s biomedical engineering program, currently ranked 15th in the country by U.S. News & World Report, have founded their own biotech companies. But Lee hopes that over the next 20 years, this class will change that.

In designing the course, Lee has coupled lectures with student projects. Guest lecturers include entrepreneurs; inventors, such as Gillies; a former Food and Drug Administration official; and a biotech business owner and venture capitalist.

Students will learn how to conduct a patent search and determine whether competitive products are available; how to submit a medical device application to the Food and Drug Administration; how to apply for a federal Small Business Innovation and Research grant; how to develop financial projections for the new product; how to write a formal business plan; and how to make a presentation to venture capitalists and negotiate a business deal that will protect their interest in their intellectual property.

The final class project, which represents 40 percent of each student’s grade, involves developing a professional-quality business plan. Student teams are developing such plans for three inventions – a vascular stent, used to reinforce a weakened arterial wall; a mattress pad packed with electronic sensors to transmit data used in diagnosing sleep disorders; and a visual prosthesis, a set of electrodes that stimulate the optical nerve for patients who are losing their sight due to macular degeneration.

“I want our students to know something about business, so that later, when they want to build companies around their technology, they’ll be prepared,” Lee said.
Lee is also interested in entrepreneurship on a personal basis. Lee and his wife, Lian Lee, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, started a company, CardioResearch Inc., to develop products that build on Jen-shih Lee’s academic work in fluid mechanics and blood flow. Lian Lee is president and research director and Lee is scientific consultant for the young company, which is developing a system to monitor low blood pressure in hemodialysis patients.

“My wife is the entrepreneur,” Lee said, “but I’m still making a contribution as a professor, a researcher and an administrator. Building the biomedical engineering profession is my commitment.”


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