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Where scientists and entrepreneurs mingle

The Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology provides a home for those who want to develop medical devices to meet unmet needs in health care, and bring them to patients.

Illustrated by Matthew Daley
Scientists and entrepreneurs mingle

Have an idea to develop a novel biomedical device, diagnostic, or health IT app that could have big patient impact? There’s a place where scientists, clinicians, and entrepreneurs can connect at Yale’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology (CBIT).

During the past five years, CBIT has developed into a one-stop shop for would-be biomedical innovators and entrepreneurs. To date, CBIT has supported more than 3,000 members of the Yale community and over 200 projects that have attracted more than $24 million in outside funding.

“Yale is about getting good ideas out into the world,” says CBIT co-founder Mark Saltzman, PhD, Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering. “Entrepreneurship is another way to do that, and to make an impact.” He and Peter Schulam, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Urology, founded CBIT in 2014 in response to a cultural shift they saw happening in higher education. “Starting your own company directly out of school has become a more common career pathway,” says Saltzman. “There is a lot of interest, but how do you get there?”

“When Mark and I co-founded CBIT, the idea was to more comprehensively support not only medical device development in this community, but also health IT, diagnostics, and processes,” says Schulam. CBIT collaborates with the Office of Cooperative Research, which supports faculty and researchers in developing technology of all types. Saltzman and Schulam wanted to expand the support and expertise offered for biomedical innovation. “CBIT team members have multiple roles,” Schulam says. “We educate and build culture. We provide mentorship, and help innovators successfully obtain seed funding.”

To help innovators, CBIT centers its services around four fundamental domains of biomedical design, according to Schulam. These include the technical, clinical, regulatory, and business aspects of innovation. Setting milestones that address all four of these needs isn’t always intuitive to science professionals who are unfamiliar with venture creation.

“Often our innovators have a technical or clinical background, so they are inclined to move their innovation all the way to the end from a technical perspective. CBIT works with them to make sure they are addressing the appropriate clinical, market, and regulatory issues as they evolve the technology,” says CBIT’s Innovation Director Margaret Cartiera, PhD ’07.

“You have to understand the process if you are in the device or health IT world and you have an idea,” adds Schulam. “At each step, you have to ask yourself whether you are meeting those four areas. If you are not, you have to pivot or you will end up with something that is not marketable.”

Through formal coursework, informal mentoring, and campus activities like hackathons, students and faculty can explore innovation in the health care space “with guardrails or without,” says Cartiera. A variety of partnerships within the university and beyond keeps innovators on the path to success.

For one-on-one mentoring, CBIT looks to industry to match innovators with experienced entrepreneurs. Co-Executive Director Michael Dempsey, having built three medical device companies, brings that perspective to CBIT.

“We work with the investigator on market analysis, while we simultaneously teach the investigator how to do it,” Dempsey says. “CBIT’s whole notion of mentoring is pretty intimate. You have to find the right combination of people who will spend a lot of time together to make the project successful.”

Before he became co-executive director of CBIT, Chris Loose, who has a PhD in chemical engineering from MIT, had launched a successful biomedical venture of his own. At Yale, “I was eager to help students and faculty do the same,” he says. “One of the real powers of CBIT is that we put MDs with business students with undergrads and others to create highly diverse collaborations that are critical for innovation.” This collaboration extends to formal coursework offered by CBIT. Loose teaches a course called Creating Health Care Ventures, in which students from across Yale work on building business and product plans.

Another well-attended course, Medical Device Design and Innovation, is co-sponsored by one of CBIT’s crucial partners, the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, which also works with CBIT to build prototypes of the medical devices created.

CBIT also holds an annual hackathon, in which teams examine unmet medical needs and connect with experienced entrepreneurs, care providers, administrators, and others capable of coaching them toward generating new solutions. “We bring hundreds of people together across dozens of institutions, including internationally,” says Loose. To date, CBIT has organized six hackathons around campus.

CBIT also develops funding sources for biomedical innovations. The group worked with the state of Connecticut to create Bio Pipeline CT, a collaboration with Yale, the University of Connecticut, Quinnipiac University, and the Connecticut Innovations agency which administers the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund. CBIT founded a $1 million, two-year initiative that provides groups of faculty and students, or small start-up companies affiliated with any Connecticut university, with up to $30,000 per project of gap funding. For every dollar given, says Loose, “$14 in follow-on funding was raised by these companies supported by the Bio Pipeline to continue to advance their ideas, and four have gone to human trials.” The program has just been renewed for another $1 million, two-year round of funding.

Saltzman’s own project was one of the first to be funded by the Bio Pipeline. For guidance, Saltzman and his colleague, Michael Girardi, MD ’92, professor of dermatology, turned to fellow experts at CBIT. They developed a biodegradable bioadhesive sunscreen using nanoparticle technology that does not absorb into the skin, unlike most commercially available sunscreens that may cause potentially harmful side effects. “We have a start-up company now that is going to put it into production, and hopefully into bottles and onto shelves,” Saltzman says.

Now that the appetite for entrepreneurship has taken hold, the next step for CBIT is to continue building collaborations with campus organizations. “CBIT is docking into Tsai CITY,” says Schulam. Tsai CITY (Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale), where Schulam acts as faculty director, operates as a portal and connector for organizations such as CBIT across the university. “CBIT is one component within a larger ecosystem of innovation,” he says. “Through Tsai CITY, we are creating interconnectivity, collaboration, and a multidisciplinary approach to innovation.”

Because of CBIT’s success on campus and in the world beyond Yale, the idea and process remain at the heart of its mission. “We want our community to know that if you see an unmet clinical need and you have an idea, you should run with that idea. The exploration itself is useful, even if it doesn’t end in a company,” says Schulam.