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Joint Biomedical Engineering Program Bridges Campuses on Tobacco Road

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a pitch competition for undergraduates over the next five years. Students must come up with ideas to address a real world problem and then pitch a project. Top pitches can win up to $15,000—too little to launch a company, but enough to build a prototype and start intellectual property work, Allbritton says.

She adds that students aren’t “saddled with the baggage” that some industry veterans carry about what can and can’t be done. “[Students] think everything can be done so they come up with some unique and innovative solutions,” she says.

Faculty members are also innovators; Allbritton counts 25 startups founded among them. Gu, who is sharing in a recently announced $4.6 million award that the JDRF and pharma giant Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) designated for research in glucose-responsive insulin therapies, says he may form a company to develop his smart insulin patch. Allbritton says these entrepreneurial aspirations are more than what university administrators envisioned in 2003, when the goal was simply to have the two universities work together. She now estimates that 10 percent of the program’s 100 graduate students are involved in a startup, “a good number, but we think we can do even better,” she says.

In a move to bolster the joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis, the universities last year hired RTP life sciences veteran Preston Linn. Though Linn retired in 2007 after 22 years in various research and management roles at Becton Dickinson (NYSE: BD), he is still a fixture at life science events throughout the Research Triangle region. As the joint program’s industry academic coordinator, Linn is the program’s link to life science companies.

Trained as a scientist, Linn says that only after some time away from Becton Dickinson did he come to realize the value of biomedical engineering’s interdisciplinary approach. Engineers build things, but scientists do experiments. Real world problems that life science companies are trying to solve call for both approaches, he explains. Linn hopes that the joint program helps build connections that link university research with RTP companies, an approach that NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is taking with its agbio research.

Allbritton would like the joint program to eventually add a site in RTP, a natural midpoint between the two universities that’s also home to many companies. Becton Dickinson, for example, still maintains an RTP research site; Bioventus, a company that develops biological products to help bones heal, is headquartered just outside of the Park. Allbritton says students would benefit from this proximity, which positions them to make the sort of professional contacts that can lead to mentors, internships, and jobs.

The private sector is already building new RTP space for university/industry collaboration. Alexandria Real Estate Equities (NYSE: ARE) is moving forward with plans to turn the 56-acre site it purchased from The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences into one million square feet of new laboratory and office space. When the company announced the Alexandria Center for Science, Technology and Agriculture last year, CEO Joel Marcus said it will include space for researchers from UNC, NC State, and Duke.

Besides private sector partnerships, Allbritton also wants the program to work with the military because some university biomedical research could apply to soldiers in the field. Military ties are already developing. Bunker Labs RDU, an accelerator program for veterans that launched earlier this year, is working with the universities to carve out a portion of its RTP offices that will become a makerspace for student biomedical engineering projects.

In the meantime, the joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis is rubbing off on undergraduates. Before choosing UNC, John Larson, now a senior and one of nearly 300 undergraduates in the department, had considered the Georgia Institute of Technology’s biomedical engineering program jointly operated with Emory University. He was interested in both engineering and medicine, but admits that he arrived at Chapel Hill with no major in mind. Larson now says the NC State/UNC joint program’s entrepreneurial emphasis spurred his own business ambitions. He points to the program’s senior design project, which involves designing, developing, and prototyping a product that addresses a healthcare need—possibly sparking the launch of a company.

“If my product is adequately marketable, that is exactly what I plan to do,” Larson says.

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