Logo: University of Southern California

BMES Organizes $200K Biomed R&D Challenge

Research center's business director pulls together Army, industry, academia and a foundation for lab-bench-to-marketplace competition judged by blue-ribbon panel
Eric Mankin
June 19, 2008 — The USC Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES) Engineering Research Center took the lead in bringing together a wide coalition to create the first-ever Medical Engineering Innovation Challenge (MEIC). 

Sean Caffey: M.D./M.B.A.: "This was  a groundbreaking competition."
Participants included USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Marshall School of Business, the U.S. Army Telemedicine &  Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), leading technology companies, the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, and graduate students from four universities. Financial support came from the Henry Jackson Foundation,
A USC team headed by neurosciences grad student Alan Horsager was one of the prizewinners, with another team headed by Viterbi CS Deppartment undergrad Rahul Kaliki in the final round.

"This was a groundbreaking competition," said BMES Director of Business Development and Corporate Partnerships Sean Caffey, who served as director of the event. "We awarded $200,000 to science graduate students, engineering graduate students and physicians at USC, Caltech, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz who had partnered with MBA students to take their medical engineering idea from the laboratory bench top to the marketplace. We are particularly grateful to our sponsors at TATRC and the Henry Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine."

Twenty-one teams submitted proposals, with six finalists, including two from USC, given the opportunity to make detailed presentations to a panel of judges May 20 at the Hilton Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Caffey, who also holds both M.D. and M.B.A. degrees, said the panel included senior corporate executives and military members from Advanced Medical Optics, Bausch & Lomb, Eli Lilly, Medtronic, National Semiconductor, Reichert, Texas Instruments and the Army, Navy and TATRC. Many of them were already working closely with the BMES group,

Medtronic Corporation Senior Program Director for Neurological Emerging Therapies  John G. Keimel was excited to serve as a
Winners: USC grad student Alan Horsager, left, and Ben Matteo of start-up EOS Neuroscience
MEIC judge. He believes his company benefited in two ways. “First, we had the opportunity to hear 21 interesting new ideas at a very early stage of development.  This exposure allowed Medtronic to evaluate the potential of each of these ideas and their possible alignment with Medtronic's business interests. 

"Perhaps even more important, participating in the Challenge allowed us to meet with many talented students and learn about their early stage ventures.   Overall, it was a invigorating experience and a wonderful opportunity to engage with these young and talented scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs."

James J. Collins, Jr, Executive Director of Drug Delivery and Device Research and Development for Eli Lilly and Company, also served as a judge. "The Medical Engineering Innovation Challenge is very consistent with Lilly's goals of supporting early innovation that hopefully will provide answers that matter to the health care community," he said.

Caffey said the competition was created to encourage students and physicians across a broad range of health related disciplines to collaborate and generate innovations in bioengineering and medicine.  "These innovations will be developed to treat or prevent traumatic injuries for the general public and then possibly for those serving in our armed forces," he said, adding that the  judges were instructed to look for excellent early stage investment opportunities, where winning proposals were likely to have “dual uses” in both military and commercial medicine in large markets. 

“I am particularly pleased that USC was chosen as the lead institution for this inaugural Medical Engineering Innovation Challenge," Caffey continued, “and that the experience has been so successful.  We anticipate this program will become even larger next year with more participating USC departments, partner universities, corporate participation and expanding to one or two more California Universities.”

Alan Horsager of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute won the $36,000 third prize for his proposal, for developing a type-specific “biological switch” that, when activated by a prosthetic light source can increase or decrease the activity of a chosen type of neuron. The chosen type for the research were neurons linked to bipolar retinal cells; the aim was to develop a therapy to treat patients blinded by photoreceptor diseases, with the initial effort focused on retinitis pigmentosa.

“Participating in the MEIC provided me the opportunity to translate bench science into a clinically relevant technology," said Horsager,  "something that is valuable from both an educational and practical perspective. Pitching an idea to top military and business leaders forces you to think about what the real impact of your technology might be.

Additionally, interacting with the panel gives you the opportunity to ask questions you might not normally be able to ask. These are people that have been directly involved in developing and translating medical technologies; it was hugely valuable to be able to learn about their experiences and gain insight into the direction we should head. Our award was critical and will provide the opportunity to prove our concept - to see if our product does have the potential to restore functional vision in the absence of photoreceptors.”

Another USC team, led by graduate student Rahul Kaliki of the Viterbi School Department of Biomedical Engineering, was one of the final six, delivering a presentation on a novel design for a neck collar airbag, "Blastbrace," for cervical stabilization after collision.

Dr. Caffey, already preparing for next year’s challenge, is looking forward to even more proposals from USC graduate students and physicians and to seeing this year’s MEIC winners commercialize their ideas.

The other winners included:

1st Place: $78,000 was awarded to Garrett Smith, Karla Brammer, Chris Petry and Ning Wang of UCSD to develop titanium dioxide nanotubes to speed bone healing in patients with implants made of titanium or other metal alloy.

2nd Place:  $61,000 was awarded to Dayu Teng and Randy Chen of UCSD to create an inexpensive, portable device for analyzing cells and microorganisms which can be used to address the urgent need for diagnosing AIDS in developing nations.

4th Place: $25,000 was awarded to Lada Rasochova and Jamie Phelps to develop diagnostic tests for faster and more accurate detection of food pathogens that will enable even better and faster monitoring of food supply safety to prevent both unintentional and intentional food borne disease outbreaks.