Passing by university campuses in the month of June, what you will notice is joyful, well dressed students, accompanied by family members, attending their graduation ceremonies. It is indeed a great feeling to have accomplished a university degree after a lot of dedication and hard work. I personally prefer the name commencement instead of graduation ceremony. After all, even though students graduate and end a significant stage of their life, they are also getting ready to embark on the next stage and many will be entering the workforce. I know many wonder what the next steps look like and thought it might be suitable to dedicate my next interview to a recent successful graduate of University of Toronto: Dr. Amir Manbachi.
Amir finished his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Division of Engineering Science and the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical engineering (IBBME) respectively. During his doctoral studies at U of T, he founded Spinesonics Medical a U of T spin-off, with the aim of improving the patient outcomes in spinal surgeries. Subsequently, he conducted a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. In 2016 he joined Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering as a faculty member. He is the author of over 20 journal articles, five patent applications and a book on image-guided spinal fusion surgery. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. You can learn more about his awards and accomplishments here and here. He has experience in both industrial and academic venues and he has some valuable insights for graduating students.
Can you tell us about your position at Johns Hopkins University and explain a little about your responsibilities?
I started my position as a Research Associate faculty at Johns Hopkins last year. During the 2016-2017 school year, I was the Director of Innovation at the Carnegie Center for Surgical Innovations. I was in charge of facilitating external collaborations with clinician scientists, surgeons, radiologists and biomedical engineers.
This year I am assigned to a similar role, but in a different setting. As the Associate Director of the Undergraduate Program, Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design (CBID), I work with an amazing team of translational scientists and educators, mainly Professors Youseph Yazdi and Nicholas Durr, with a focused mandate on education and innovation. As part of the program, we are mainly in charge of nurturing, mentoring and teaching Biomedical Engineering (BME) students on how to do engineering design and come up with a solution to clinical problems. There are over 100 students in the Hopkins BME program and each one has to take a certain design credit as part of their undergraduate curriculum.
How do students find the problems?
The problems are submitted to the center by Johns Hopkins surgeons. These are some of the world’s best surgeons, not only because of their clinical practice, but also unique in the sense that they are very innovation-driven and constantly thinking about how to improve their patient care. Once these clinical problems are submitted to the program and chosen by the student teams, the faculty teaches and guides the students on how to come up with a well-thought solution and design, and how to fabricate a device prototype, and perhaps even publish their solution and/or file for patents. In the past, the program has had success with a number of student-led startups that are spin-offs from CBID.
Would it be correct to say that this would be like an academic incubator setting for entrepreneurial work for students?
Perhaps! However, with a fundamental difference that our program is based in an academic setting (to offer a capstone design course) and the main mandate is the education of students. Students take the capstone design course for credit, mainly to learn about the fundamentals of design, with a bit of an entrepreneurial spin. Students may later go to incubators to get exposure to more entrepreneurial landscapes.
Our goal is to teach the different steps that are involved in engineering a surgical device in an academic setting. They should know how to do need identification by talking to surgeons and understanding what the main problem is. They also learn how to do market analysis. This is to make sure they don’t spend time on something that only two surgeons will use at the end of the day. Next, they learn about the different requirements for regulatory approval pathways and patent law. This will ensure that their project is protected and operational within a certain state.
You went back to academia after your spinoff experience. Why did you decide to go back? Usually the trend is the other way around.
Other than insanity? Joking aside, in my opinion, the end goal of bioengineering research projects is to have an impact on improving patients’ lives and academia ideally allows us to explore various ideas. As an entrepreneur, and in a start-up setting, you might have more freedom to pursue your interests; however, one needs to focus single-mindedly on one single project and take it all the way to a monetizable stage, whereas an exciting notion about being in academia is that you are always hungry for the next invention and to solve a new problem.
I like the notion of academic entrepreneurship. If you really want to leave a legacy and fingerprint on diverse success stories, I think the academic setting works in your favor. This diversification and early-stage translational research is what I have observed in many of the role models who have inspired me (e.g. Professors Robert Langer, Henry Brem and Ali Khademhosseini). Long story short, I think as an academic entrepreneur you have the leverage of being a thinker, to come up with different ideas, to collaborate with clinicians and be exposed to diverse fields to tackle health care problems.
Many times we hear that the main challenge of being a new faculty is receiving enough funding to conduct research. Have you had similar challenges? Can you give us a comparison between funding challenges for academic vs. industrial venues?
There are definitely funding challenges in both worlds. The challenges can be different depending on the team, nature of the project and even your own personality. I personally have felt more comfortable in translational funding opportunities. For instance, in Canada I was able to receive support from OCE (Ontario Centre of Excellence), OBI (Ontario Brain Institute), FedDev (Federal Development Ontario), and in the U.S., from the Coulter Foundation which offers funding for translational projects.
For a junior faculty who would be pretty much competing with more senior professors, the chances of getting governmental funding, like from NIH, can be slim. A full professor has a lot of experience in applying for different grants and so, for them, it may be like bread and butter: They know what the grant agencies look for and how to effectively communicate with them. So it is safe to assume that it is easier for them to apply for and receive such funding.
On the other hand, entrepreneurial grant agencies have a totally different focus and mindset. The applicant’s attention should be on defining the problem, the solution, the market size for it and the IP portfolio. This mindset is a bit different than that of fundamental and basic sciences in academia and this is not as familiar to senior faculty. But, the new generation of graduates has had more exposure to the translational and entrepreneurial success stories and may have an easier time relating to similar opportunities. I have to add that my personal entrepreneurial mindset makes me a bit biased in this regard.
What surprised you most after graduating?
The most surprising thing to me was the realization that, in the real-world, not all the ideal components of success come together at the same time, and the nature of the challenge for each project keeps changing. You could have the best team and a great project but just not the right timing. To overcome such challenges, one may need to keep working on the cards he/she is being handed without being discouraged.
And finally, do you have any specific advice for graduating students?
The best advice that I have heard collectively from my role models is to find what you are passionate about and be brutally honest with yourself. The earlier that you find what makes your heart beat, the easier it is to become successful. Figure out what keeps you awake at night and wakes you up early in the morning.
In addition, it is really important to realize what your strengths and weaknesses are. We live in a time when people rarely talk about their weaknesses. I think it is really important to know your weaknesses early on and team up with others who are stronger in those areas. This way you complement each other. You could definitely learn something that you are not so good at, but that comes with the assumption that you will have an infinite amount of time to gain new skills. In the rush of today’s society, the best scenario would be to find someone who has that skillset and team up with them. As Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, don’t waste it living somebody else’s life. “
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