Stanford Biodesign, a Hothouse for Medical Devices, Shares its Secret Sauce for Invention

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Stanford’s Program in Biodesign assesses its would-be and current fellows much as a lot of other elite graduate programs do. It looks at their academic record of achievement, their creative potential, and what they go on to accomplish in life.

But one thing really struck me as unusual when I was on campus last week for the graduation of this year’s fellows, at Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The Biodesign program, which seeks to train a new generation of hands-on inventors of novel medical technologies, places huge emphasis on a certain specific metric: How many patients have been treated with its students’ inventions.

In the first 10 years of the program, a group of 70 alumni have invented new medical technologies that have treated some 35,000 patients. This stems from a cultural attitude that seems to go something like this: If you discover something impressive to your peers, but it has no business plan associated with it, doesn’t generate IP, can’t attract seed financing, and can’t ever enter a clinical trial, then you haven’t gone far enough. The program is structured to train students in both cutting-edge bioengineering, and in how to build it into a business.

“In order for discovery and innovation to matter, it’s got to get to the patients,” said Tom Krummel, a surgeon at Stanford University School of Medicine and co-director of the Biodesign program, in his talk to the graduates on the lawn outside the Cantor Center. “Commercialization can be difficult. It’s treacherous, it’s messy. But with no business, there is no translation of discovery.”

Paul Yock

Paul Yock

Paul Yock, the Stanford bioengineering professor and co-founder of the Program in Biodesign, added, “it’s a high bar.”

One of the old saws of journalism is “Show, Don’t Tell,” and the organizers of the Biodesign graduation shrewdly showed the program’s impact at this year’s ceremony, without much need for the telling. As visitors passed through the Cantor Center hallway, there were posters describing about a dozen companies that bear the fingerprints of Biodesign fellows. For each company, the poster featured the names of the fellows involved, a short description of what the company does, and a bold red tag at the top listing how many patients were treated with its technology. Here were a few examples:

David Miller, a fellow from the class of 2002, went on to co-found InnoSpine to commercialize technology for diagnosing back pain. The company was acquired in 2006 by Kyphon for $2.5 million upfront, plus more than $27 million in potential milestones. Number of patients treated: 7,000.

—Acumen Medical, co-founded by Biodesign fellows Chris Eversull and Nick Mourlas from the class of 2001-2002, developed a technology to deliver drugs to the heart. Number of patients treated: 5,000.

—San Francisco-based iRhythm Technologies traces its founding to the Biodesign class of 2006. This company, founded by Biodesign fellow Uday Kumar, created the Zio, to help diagnose irregular heartbeats, known as arrhythmias. Number of patients treated: 10,000.

Josh Makower

Josh Makower

The students didn’t accomplish those things after listening to a bunch of lectures from talkers. The Biodesign co-founders are entrepreneurial doers themselves. They are Yock, the inventor of a balloon angioplasty system and a number of other medical technologies, and Joshua Makower, the CEO of ExploraMed, a medical device incubator supported by New Enterprise Associates. Makower’s latest win was as a co-founder of Acclarent, a developer of a device for chronic sinusitis which sold in December to Johnson & Johnson for $785 million.

While one guy at the top often gets the credit, Yock stressed that it’s also about the IP attorneys, the venture capitalists, the Stanford clinicians, and the entrepreneurs who come in to offer their specific expertise to help the fellows navigate the risky path of commercialization. “The secret sauce of the Biodesign program is here tonight,” Yock said. “It’s the community. We appreciate how lucky we are to be in the Valley.”

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