1.5.13

INCUBATE THIS!

(Published in Johns Hopkins Engineering Magazine)

INCUBATE THIS!

How great ideas are making it to market, thanks to an enterprising new breed of engineers. By Mat Edelson

Sitting alone in her incubator, Karin Hwang looks and sounds incredibly grown up for her age. It’s a little after 10 a.m. on a brisk Wednesday morning. Late by normal natal standards, but the half-dozen baby businesses that are taking their first steps here, in offices dotting the third floor of Baltimore’s old Eastern High School, are just waking up to the day. 

Such is life in the Emerging Technology Center at Johns Hopkins Eastern, which seems intent on nurturing its newbies, right down to the “Go ’n Grow” cubical suite for those cash-poor start-ups fresh out of the womb. As Hwang makes her way past the darkened offices and enters her office-cum-lab, B309, two things mark her immediately as a member of Generation Tech: A case of Coke sitting atop a donated mini-fridge and two well-used couches--heavy fuel for the mission-driven and a soft landing place in the wee hours for the mission-exhausted.

And yet, the fact that Hwang’s even on this mission, at this relatively tender age, speaks volumes about a sea change in academia. In the middle of a desk filled with an engineer’s knick-knacks—a wire here, a plastic mold there—Hwang’s holding her future (and perhaps the future of accurately testing for the onset of labor) in the palm of her hand. CervoCheck, the tiny, three-legged piece of rubbery silicon, hardly seems revolutionary—but then again, the wheel wasn’t probably all that impressive at first to those who hadn’t seen it before.

Not that long ago, the only way Karin Hwang would have gotten this close to a piece of emerging technology seeking a market would have been deep in the lab of a conglomerate that would have owned her work lock, stock, and all the free tea and soda they could pour down her gullet. Given the traditional, fundamental engineering curricula Hwang would have been exposed to just a few years ago, the biomedical engineer wouldn’t even have known what to do with such a medical device, other than perhaps perfect its physical properties.

The potential game-changer Hwang is holding is anything but a gift from some corporate taskmaster. While still a student at Hopkins last year—indeed, as the core part of her master’s program in Bioengineering Innovation and Design—Hwang and three fellow engineers were responsible for identifying the need such a device could fill, designing said contraption, and determining its patentability, market, and business viability. Nothing was left to guess work, as a unique curriculum guaranteed that Hwang would receive as much exposure to entrepreneurship and business as she did to beefing up her biomedical engineering chops.

And when the program was said and done, Hwang wasn’t. Along with classmate Sung Jin "Nate" Sunwoo, she set up shop, began negotiating a licensing agreement with Hopkins, found a few sheep for testing the device, and set about on the wondrous process of taking an engineering idea that had come in part from her mind and bringing it to a place where it could safely be placed in the human body.

At 23, she also created a business card with the appropriate business title:

CEO.

***

Throughout the Whiting School, engineering students are being exposed to the culture of business in ways that would have been unthinkable in the days when their veteran professors attended university—a time when “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” ruled the day.

No more. Today programs are being established to ensure that those who want to apply their engineering skills to real-world problems will have, as any engineer can appreciate, the right business, management, and financial tools in their toolbox. 

Many are offered through the Whiting School's Center for Leadership Education (CLE). Notably, CLE offers undergraduate engineers an Entrepreneurship & Management (E&M) minor including classes in accounting, professional communications, and leadership and organizational Behavior. The CLE program is headed by Tim Weihs, Ph.D., a professor of material science and engineering who is also an entrepreneur, having patented and developed reactive foil technology. 

Weihs believes that exposing engineering students to business concepts--indeed creating entrepreneurially-minded engineering graduates and a campus-wide movement to take technology from research papers to applied, useful products--is very important, even if it means some adjustment from traditionally research-driven educational models.

“I think in an engineering school there’s room for both (research and business exposure) and, frankly, if you don’t have both you are less competitive. My basic argument is that engineering schools should deliver three ‘products.’ Students are your top product. Knowledge is number two. And a close number three should be technology development. Instead of just handing knowledge over the fence, you also want to be creating technologies and transferring them to the world to make it a better place.”

Weihs notes that a related tech transfer/entrepreneurial push is occurring in the two-year-old Masters of Science in Engineering Management  (MSEM) program. That degree pairs a concentration in one of 13 engineering specialties with five business courses covering multiple topics from finance and management to intellectual property and venture planning, all within Whiting’s CLE. The MSEM is, in part, an outgrowth of the hugely popular E & M (Entrepreneurship & Management) minor, which is essentially the same financial inculcation experienced by students in the Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design (CBID) masters program.

Similar exposure to the potential of commercialization is taking place up at the Institute of NanoBioTechnology. The Institute has created a summer seminar for doctoral students that brings in venture capitalists, tech transfer experts, and corporate leaders as a way of balancing what is, by its very nature, an intensive research experience. 

“We think it’s quite important that students know that there are options open to them other than academic careers or careers in an R&D lab; i.e., there are possibilities for joining a start-up company or potentially even starting their own company, commercializing what they’re doing in the lab,” says Peter Searson, director of the institute and a professor of materials science and engineering.

Across the board, these program directors say there’s a certain kind of mindset that’s growing among their students. “The students who come [to our program] are the kinds of students who really want to have an impact on the world,” says Youseph Yazdi, PhD., executive director of CBID and the David E. Swirnow Master of Science in Bioengineering Innovation and Design program. 

CBID’s yearlong master’s program places students like Karin Hwang into three months of rotations at various Johns Hopkins Hospital units. There, working side-by-side with clinicians, surgeons, and nurses, they analyze literally hundreds of systems, devices…anything that catches their eye as a potential problem to solve. These myriad possibilities are boiled down to three team projects that by year’s end will yield prototypes, and more importantly, proto-minds capable of understanding the stress loads that can fracture a medical device or their investor’s bottom line.

For Hwang and her team, their interest was piqued by the fact that devices for sensing when a woman was going into premature labor were both primitive in design (a belt worn around the waist to mechanically detect uterine contractions, a notoriously poor design for obese women) and antiquated (nothing new had come on the market in almost 30 years). 

Knowing the precise stage of labor is vital to physicians who are trying to bring a baby to term; Hwang’s team had struck upon the idea that a device that analyzed electrical signals directly from the cervix could be far more accurate and popular for use among OB/GYN’s.

“We make the commitment to our CBID students that they will work on projects with both significant clinical impact and high commercial potential,” says Yazdi, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering who also holds an MBA. “It may not be something that gets you a Nobel Prize in Physics, and it may not always be cutting edge in terms of technology, but it will be cutting edge in terms of impacting people.”

***
If Karin Hwang is fortunate, she’ll end up like Matt Daimler. Daimler is the poster child for all an entrepreneurial-minded Whiting engineer grad is supposed to be.

A computer science engineer, Daimler was one of the first engineers to graduate with an E & M minor in 1999. To say he set the bar high for all who followed would be an understatement. Shortly after graduating, Daimler was flopping around his coach seat on a 12-hour flight to the Czech Republic, desperately trying to get comfortable. Diagonally across from him was a man who managed to snag a spot with no seat in front of him; that lucky traveler pulled down a sleeping bag, created an ersatz ottoman for his legs, and promptly passed out. Daimler, who was making regular business trips to Prague, memorized that seat number and swore he’d book it next time around. Only thing, there was no easy way to book it. At least, not until Daimler put his mind and programming skills to the task.

Five years later, with his wife, Susan Damelin Daimler (A&S '99), he launched SeatGuru.com. The Internet portal that showed each airline’s airplane seat configurations was written up by Time magazine as one of the “50 Coolest Web Sites” of 2006, and a year after that Daimler sold the company to a division of Expedia. The sales price remains confidential (“In our actual contract documents for the sale, I had to get a provision allowing me to tell my parents that I’d sold SeatGuru,” laughs Daimler, “and if my parents leaked the sale, I was on the hook for that leak”), but he admits he did “really well,” crediting his Whiting School education for “helping me in every stage of my career.”

“To go into a program where you learn a touch of business, a touch of law, a touch of marketing, it makes you dangerous when you get to your first job, your next job…it really does help you when you get out there in the real world. I think that’s what everyone on campus realized, that this was the kind of a ‘life/job’ minor you could use throughout your career,” says Daimler.

******
For universities like Hopkins, the pressure to shift the traditional academic model away from strictly basic or foundational work was three-pronged, with the first two big knocks coming from outside the Whiting School’s doors. The groundwork was laid some 30 years ago when The Feds—through the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 (a.k.a. the University Small Business Patent Procedures Act)—allowed universities to patent their research. The most astute university administrators understood Uncle Sam's message between the lines: “We’ll fund your work…but you’ll need to have something useful to show the public for our dime.”

As an example, that National Institutes of Health, which drops more than $600 million in research money in Hopkins’ coffers annually, has over time pushed more and more monies toward translational research aimed at yielding concrete drugs, devices, and other clinical benefits for patients.

At first, the response among academics was deep grumbles. Few had licensed their own research efforts; even fewer had developed them into successful businesses that students could emulate.

This changed at Hopkins as tech transfer offices became a campus staple, with ad hoc attempts on various campuses crystallizing at Hopkins with the creation of the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer office in 2001. John Fini, director of Intellectual Property & Technology Commercialization for the Homewood Campus, who interacts with the university’s tech transfer office on a daily basis, notes the School of Engineering now has some 360 patents from engineering professors in its portfolio, and some have opted to create their own start-ups.

This has had a trickle down effect on students. Laura Ensign, a doctoral researcher at INBT, notes that her principal investigator has his own pharmaceutical start-up, while another engineering advisor has a company developing a gel to prevent HIV infection. “My thinking [about business] has evolved. At first I was all about the research, but as we’ve gone along it’s now about ‘what’s the application?’ Which I think makes it more exciting, the translational aspects,” says Ensign. “Plus, coming in, I hadn’t known about IP [intellectual property] and how you could take things we were doing at the bench and turn it into a product. I’ve been on a couple of patents with my PI that have gotten sold.”

Industry needs also fueled the change, as firms weighed in that they wanted engineering grads who could solve more than a calculus problem. “The whole E & M minor started because professors, notably John Wierman, kept hearing from potential employers: ‘Your kids need to know some business basics. I can’t even discuss a balance sheet and income statement with them,’” says Lawrence Aronhime, a senior lecturer who teaches Intro to Business, Financial Accounting, and Entrepreneurship to undergraduates. Aronhime also organizes CBID’s business curriculum and teaches Venture Planning in the MSEM program out of Whiting’s Center for Leadership Education, where he’s the associate director.

To Aronhime, a solid grounding in business matters is just as important to an engineer’s long-term success as technical proficiency. “The technical competency gets you in the door and starts you up the promotion line,” he says. “But at the end of the day, senior managers [in engineering and tech firms] start to slowly shift as they go up that line, toward a business competence and focus.”

And that’s a competency to which 21st-century engineering students are demanding they have access. Ultimately, at any institution, the consumer rules, and today’s student consumers are coming of age at a time when some of the most successful engineer-cum-entrepreneurs (hello, Mark Zuckerberg!) look exactly like they do, right down to the scraggly clothes and unlined faces.

“There’s a feeling, an expectation that you’re supposed to do something bigger. That’s the burden of our generation, that you’re not supposed to be just an expert in one thing or just stay in a narrow niche,” says 27-year-old Laura Ensign. “I have a lot of friends I went to engineering school with who are very entrepreneurially-minded. That’s their passion. I feel like I’d be selling myself short if I just got an industry research position in a lab for the rest of my life. I’d be cutting off my potential.”

Ensign’s philosophy is music to the ears of Phil Green '58, the School of Engineering alumnus who was a pioneer in medical robotics. Green sits on the School's Technology and Commercialization Advisory Board, a nationwide group of 40 successful tech-minded alumni chaired by Phil Garfinkle, P '10, '13, a former key player in Kodak’s Chief Technology Office who created and sold several tech-oriented start-ups.

Phil Green’s main role is to find venture capital for potential Whiting School start-ups, but he also sees a direct pipeline back to Hopkins in the offing, with each new venture serving as both a thought catalyst and employment opportunity for business-minded engineering graduates. “[These new ventures will] help school Hopkins grads in the idea that ‘you can do this, it’s available to you, and it’s exciting.’”

Indeed, some area ventures are showing signs of just such a pipeline. Engineers John Trupiano, BS/MS '06, and Yair Flicker, BS/MS '06, both of whom took extensive CLE business coursework (Flicker graduated with an E&M minor) started SmartLogic Solutions web consulting five years ago; they’ve already grown their start-up to eight employees, including, since their start, three Hopkins engineering grads. Similarly, T. Rowe Price has, through 2010, annually chosen at least one Hopkins engineering senior for its extremely competitive two-year investment fellows program (see sidebar). The program combines the ability to create complex mathematical trending models with the management and communication skills necessary in the financial world. Vice President Sean Jones, who directs the fellowship, is blunt about the advantage Whiting School grads have.

“We’re looking for people with strong analytical skills, but who don’t just want to sit in a lab. They need to get out, talk to people, and dig into problems. What distinguishes people in the program…is going beyond the basics of what’s asked of you. Can you run with the problem, go find solutions, do research on your own, pull things together and do the analysis without a huge amount of guidance?” says Jones. “So those with entrepreneurial skills, those who are creative, driven--those do well in this program, and we get a lot of them from Hopkins.”

Karin Hwang is optimistic that one day, funding and providence willing, she’ll be able to employ future CBID grads as well. Nate Sunwoo, her partner in CervoCheck, was a fellow CBID’er, and Hwang says she hopes one day they’ll be plenty of room at the incubator for a few new old friends.

 “We’re always looking at Hopkins folks for potential internships or to later on add to our team. Especially those people from our program who have our skill set. I can see in the future us becoming a pipe line,” Hwang says.

As they say in both business and engineering…it’s all about the flow.
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SIDEBAR-FROM MIND TO MATTER
For senior material sciences major Laura Veldhuis, business and innovation has long been part of her game. In high school, she was on a team that received a $6,000 grant from MIT as part of a design contest; their resulting prototype—a device that, deriving its power from a moving bicycle, recharged USB-connectible electronics—thrilled the assembled crowd in Cambridge. At Homewood, despite her heavy course load, through the CLE's Hopkins Student Enterprises program, she ran a cake and care package delivery service for two years, arranging everything from storage of the delectables to marketing the service to parents nationwide.

Learning experiences for sure, but nothing compared to her present position interning in Whiting’s Office of Technology Transfer’s Intellectual Property department. Each day she delves into the underbelly of nearly every lab associated with the Whiting School, sifting through research papers that could lead to commercialized products. She is awed by what she encounters.

“I feel like everybody would be so excited if they could see all the things I read, all the provisional patents we have. The things people are working on are so interesting--crazy stuff that almost sounds like science fiction and interesting medical devices,” says Veldhuis.

For Veldhuis, the internship is the actualization of both her own interests and lessons learned as part of her E & M minor. Several of her professors, including Tim Weihs and Howard Katz, have either worked in industry or have their own companies. They spoke freely of their delight in going from bench to market, taking their work and shaping it into products that benefit the public. Veldhuis uses the word “phenomenal” to describe her Business Law classes (“Great profs who really knew their stuff!”) but saves favorite class status for senior lecturer Lawrence Aronhime’s Entrepreneurship course.

“Every single week we had to come up with a new idea and different frameworks for how to develop that idea. It was a good time, perfect for people like me who like to play around with ideas,” she says.

With graduation just around the corner, Veldhuis, who is working on transparent conductive oxides in Katz’s lab (think of the glass screen on an i-Phone, and you’ve got one such example), says her melding of business with engineering has her considering numerous options. Consulting, venture capital, patent law, perhaps continuing on with an MSEM…one thing she knows is that, in her mind, basic and applied engineering are forever intertwined.

“I think there’s a revolving door for engineers, where you work in industry for a bit, come back to academia and get a master’s or PhD, then flow back and forth,” says Veldhuis. “It’s a nice way to keep ideas fresh.”

***
SIDEBAR-MODEL EMPLOYEE…BY M. Edelson

When John Creizis, '07, was a kid, it didn’t matter whether it was electric pencil sharpeners or the stock market: if something could be broken down and analyzed, he was all over it. 

Raised in Evanston, IL, Criezis was a youngster ahead of his time, right down to the childhood stock portfolio he began managing at the age of 12. On those occasions when his stocks tanked, Criezis wasn’t discouraged. Instead, he says, “I saw it as a challenge to get better, to better understand what I was investing in, so that if a stock went wrong, I wanted it to happen because of something I saw as a risk, not something that I didn’t expect.”

Flash forward a dozen years, and Criezis, now 26, is doing the same thing at T. Rowe Price, where he’s currently analyzing stocks with Price’s International Equities Team. The full-time job is his latest stop on a whirlwind tour of the world of finance, courtesy of a two-year Investment Fellowship funded by T. Rowe Price, that Criezis was began upon graduation from the Whiting School. The global investment firm, which usually offers four such fellowships each year, specifically targets engineers or those with engineering-like skills. “As the finance industry has evolved, math, computer science, and engineering people have an advantage (as) the analytics have become more advanced,” says Criezis. “Everything has become more mathematically based.”

Prior to his current posting at Price, Criezis went through the equivalent of financial boot camp, with six-month intensive exposures in four different departments at T. Rowe Price: Asset Allocation, Equity Trading, Quantitative Fixed Income, and Risk Management. Though called a fellowship, the program is in fact a full-time appointment with commensurate pay to other entry-level positions in the field. As part of his duties, Criezis analyzed numerous models for predicting success and failure, and created his own models for simulations. Of his work now on International Equities, he notes, “I’m using a lot of the quantitative tools I helped build while I was working in the fellowship program.”

Criezis, who completed the E &M minor while a student at the Whiting School, enjoys the opportunity to intermingle finance and engineering. He finds it gives him an edge up, especially when, as part of analyzing a stock, he meets with senior management from high-tech companies.

 “Just this morning, I was on a call with a company that makes very specialized equipment for the semiconductor industry. If I wasn’t an engineer, I probably wouldn’t understand how these chips are made…if you really understand product differentiation, you can [tell] whether they have an advantage against a competitor, versus just trying to sell a puff of smoke.”

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