University of Pittsburgh biomedical engineer George Stetten once described his inspiration as "just a silly idea I had one day."
Dr. Stetten's silly idea was to create a device that combines a small sonogram and a mirror to effectively give surgeons a real-time, seemingly direct view through a patient's skin as they insert a needle. Using the device can mean the difference between finding the jugular vein, or making a mistake and hitting the carotid artery and causing a stroke.
It is, in short, a silly idea that can save lives.
Elegant in its simplicity, the "sonic flashlight" has won praise in the popular press and scientific magazines as well as from surgeons who have seen Dr. Stetten demonstrate it.
In 2010, it was featured in a Bloomberg News program on medical innovations. (The program can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERle45xg9l8&feature=player_embedded)
Yet, more than 10 years after Dr. Stetten invented the sonic flashlight, and despite a wave of early publicity, the device is still months away from becoming commercially available.
Why has it taken so long?
The answer lies, in part, in historic cultural barriers between academia and the investment community -- barriers that Pitt and other universities are trying to tear down.
Pitt's McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine and the Swanson School of Engineering just received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps to develop a strategy for commercializing a nerve regeneration treatment. That team is led by Kacey Marra, who is laboratory director for plastic surgery research at Pitt.
A key player in getting that grant has been Pratap Khanwilkar, a bioengineering professor who came to the university last fall after years in the business world where he helped turn start-ups companies into successful commercial ventures. One of his specialties at Pitt is the development and commercialization of medical devices and bioengineering department.
"I can't think of anyone who has become a more important member of the faculty," said Harvey Borovetz, chairman of Pitt's bioengineering department.
Mr. Khanwilkar represents a bridge between researchers, who historically have focused on getting published in prestigious academic journals, and an investment community that wants to see a business plan analyzing the potential market and how soon there will be a return on investment.
With his sonic flashlight, Dr. Stetten learned how wide that chasm can be.
"We had a whole bunch of coverage and then it just sat there," he recalled. "Somebody has to be interested who has money and how do you find that person? It's not like Silicon Valley where rich people are walking from garage to garage, and I'm not sure they're even doing that there."
Two different companies bought options on the sonic flashlight, but neither worked out for one reason or another.
"It seemed like a no-brainer, but nobody wanted it so we had to start our own company," he said.
Today, global licensing rights for the sonic flashlight belong to South Side company Insituvue and is in the hands of its executive vice president, Gary Rosensteel, who also runs NuCoPro in McMurray, a company that helps launch startups.
The jump from academic research to commercial vehicle is neither a small nor easy step for many, Mr. Rosensteel said.
But there is growing interest among universities in what is known as "translational research," or research that will have practical applications -- and real potential for commercialization.
"There's obviously been a change in how the academic institutions view their role," said Mr. Rosensteel, who is based in Peters. "They are not only open to [commercialization], they are actively seeking it."
The motivation is not just the prospect of royalty riches either.Federal grants are now more likely to require some evidence of "bench-to-bedside" potential for researchers, and Mr. Borovetz said students are demanding educational programs that will lead to good paying jobs. "Students want to become attractive to industry."
Unfortunately, the shift to translational research comes at a time when the struggling economy, both domestic and international, has made the investment community more cautious, said Mr. Rosensteel. Large companies move slowly and "tend not to pursue new technologies coming out of universities," he said.
But the more nimble smaller companies don't have the capital to invest that they once had.
Insituvue now has one investor, in Singapore, but Mr. Rosensteel said the company is looking for $2 million more for the expected commercial launch of the sonic flashlight in early 2013, with an expected market for the device in excess of $1 billion.
In the meantime, Dr. Stetten is in his lab working on a new device, which he calls "an hand-held force magnifier" that will enhance a surgeon's tactile feel as he or she operates on microscopic nerves in the eye or other sensitive areas.
He has been working on the force magnifier for two years. He hopes it will be commercially available by 2017 -- if it can attract investors.
Steve Twedt: email@example.com or 412-263-1963.