The Journey to Impact: Researching the Power of Molecules to Drive Life

Many of our researchers and faculty at BU are doing work to make real change in the world. As part of our series of discussions with faculty innovators, I speak with Professor Ji-Xin Cheng, Moustakas Chair Professor in Photonics and Optoelectronics and Professor of Biomedical Engineering (ENG). Professor Cheng’s research pursues a wide range of topics, including molecular spectroscopic imaging technologies; label-free microscopy; medical photonics; neurophotonics; cancer metabolism; and photonics for infectious diseases. All of his projects are focused around the question of how biomolecules and molecular assemblies function and drive life inside of living cells.

Ji-Xin Cheng
Professor Ji-Xin Cheng, BU College of Engineering

Rana Gupta [RG]: You have many ideas, clearly. What is your main objective with all of your research and work?

Ji-Xin Cheng [JXC]: I have many products that I have worked on and am working on now. I like to pursue new things that I was not familiar with before, rather than stick to my own field. I’m not afraid to do new things. My projects are problem-driven.

I’m interested in fundamental and basic science. First, I want to understand ‘why?’ How do the molecules work together, communicate to drive life inside a living cells. Second, while I’m answering the first, I want to benefit society with tools for therapy and diagnosis.

RG: What needs have you identified?

JXC: What I do is talk with physicians and other stakeholders in the health care system to identify problems and needs, and also to ask, “Who is the customer?” This approach has resulted in several ideas and innovations. For example, permitting me to apply a technology that initially targeted breast cancer (small tumors) to urology, as well. I learned this by stationing myself in a surgery setting. Another invention is my microscope for label-free detection. The customers for this are researchers to help them study cells; tissues that they can’t label but want to study.

RG: What are the paths you have chosen? I know there are more than one.

JXC: There are four specific pathways:

  1. Government grants for fundamental research and publications;
  2. Government grants that lead to an invention (e.g. microscope) and, therefore, licensing to a third party;
  3. Corporate-sponsored research; and
  4. Startups, of which I am the founder.

We have taken these various pathways to make an impact for and with our research. I have 30 people working with me. To keep moving forward, for some projects we have received grants — including those from NIH and the Department of Energy. We also continue to publish, for example this piece on Multimodal Metabolic Imaging in BME Frontiers.

RG: That’s a lot! How do you pull this all off?

JXC: This portfolio of pathways is made possible by my students. Some students want to publish and some want a commercial pursuit. The CEOs of my two startups (Vibronix Inc. and Phulsethera) are former students. I permit my students to pursue what they are interested in.

RG: What are the biggest differences between pursuing these pathways vs. research

JXC: With research, in order to publish to a good paper, you need a big story — a “Star Wars” type story! To commercialize, you need simple solutions and to pay attention to pricing and people. They are contradictory forces that we have to recognize.

Also, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to turn a concept into a product. It’s easier to publish than to make a product, in my experience. For example, it took our startup Vibronix 2.5 years after our licensing deal to actually make a product.

RG: What is your reaction to invention versus innovation definitions?

JXC: I agree that invention is not enough. For example, a patent; having a patent does not mean you have made, or will make, an impact. Even a patent licensed by a company is not yet impactful. You have to make a product. We have FDA approval for our latest invention and now we can move forward with sales.

RG: What would you like to share with fellow researchers, peers, and students at BU about what you’ve learned so far?

JXC: Every person is different. I took a particular path. Remember, BU has a limited IP budget. Therefore it behooves you to demonstrate the commercial value of your idea to make sure it’s worthy of a patent.

Also, think about collaborating with different people across BU campuses. For recent work on treating advanced melanoma, we collaborated between the engineering and medical campuses. An internal proposal triggered this collaboration. I recommend working with your office, Rana — Technology Development — to help facilitate discussions with others.

RG: Thank you, Professor Cheng.

Image of Rana GuptaThe Journey to Impact is a monthly blog featuring insights from Rana K. Gupta, Director of Faculty Entrepreneurship at Boston University. He helps BU researchers bring technology and other research breakthroughs to the marketplace to increase their impact through programs and workshops, one-on-one consulting with faculty, educational resources, and community building among BU innovators.

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