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Science & Tech

Turning Medical Research into Reality

BU and German firm commit $5 million to get devices from drawing board to market

Venture capitalist panel will help decide which research the alliance will support.

“University research only gets you to a certain point,” says Andre Sharon, a College of Engineering professor of manufacturing engineering, “because universities generally don’t have the infrastructure to turn that research into real, working machines on the factory floor or in patient rooms in hospitals.” 

In recent years, Boston University has been working to address this need, known as “translational research,” the specialized manufacturing, engineering, and business know-how that every high-tech innovation needs to go from bright idea to commercialized product. In January it will launch another major initiative to speed innovation to market: an alliance with the German R&D nonprofit, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft.

The five-year, $5 million alliance, jointly funded by the University and Fraunhofer, will focus on the most promising medical devices and diagnostics currently on faculty lab benches. The new venture will be another level of cooperation between BU and Fraunhofer, which jointly established the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI) at BU in 1995, one of more than 50 such institutes worldwide. 

“The Fraunhofer mission is to bridge the gap between academic research and industrial needs,” says Sharon who is also the director of CMI. For the past decade, CMI engineers, with the help of BU faculty and students, have developed automation and manufacturing systems for companies ranging from pharmaceutical firms to defense contractors. All resulting licensing agreements and spin-off companies are co-owned by BU and Fraunhoffer Gesellschaft.

The new alliance will establish an advisory board of local venture capitalists and corporate executives to help select the work of BU researchers that seems most ready to make the jump to actual patient care.

“We can cherry-pick the most promising activities” says Sharon, “and then put our money and our engineers to work on taking that research and turning it into a real medical device or diagnostic.”

According to Sharon, they will take advantage of “vibrant research pipelines” already at BU, such as the translational partnership awards for research collaborations between ENG biomedical engineers and clinicians at the Medical Campus, funded by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.   

 “One of the key aspects of any new innovation is meeting the manufacturing challenges of the technology,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG. “This alliance will allow work to begin on manufacturing an actual medical device while lab research continues to show proof of principle that the technology actually works.”

In addition to the manufacturing challenges of bringing an idea to life, there are also business issues, such as navigating intellectual property claims, licensing agreements, and market research. To ease this process, the alliance will tap the business acumen of advisory board members, Lutchen says, and will work closely with other recent BU translational research initiatives, including the Coulter program, the Ignition Awards sponsored by the Office of Technology Development, and the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), a Cambridge-based consortium of hospitals, universities, and engineering laboratories that BU joined early this year.

Although the alliance will probably take on only a couple of innovations annually, Sharon says, he encourages faculty to approach them at any time with medical device ideas they think are ready to make the transition into actual patient care.

“Come and talk to us,” says Sharon. “If we come across promising research activity, we’ll support it.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.