The intersection of two fields tend to generate a wellspring of production and growth that extends to not only the conjoining fields but also beyond. This is certainly the case for biomedical engineering and its practitioners. One such practitioner is Vanderbilt University’s Todd Giorgio, PhD, whom we were lucky to have as a lecturer for UTHSC’s LEADS seminar series in early 2018. Having received his degrees in Chemical Engineering, Dr. Giorgio became increasingly interested in biology as a graduate school mentor of his was exploring blood platelets. Dr. Giorgio, who’d never had a single college biology course, dove into the subject as a response and began building an instrument that pushed him into the then burgeoning world of biomedical engineering.
He was a hire into the Chemical Engineering department at Vanderbilt, though his work mainly focused on biomedical engineering. As biomedical engineering became a full-fledged department rather than a specialized program at Vanderbilt, Dr. Giorgio switched his primary appointment to the department.
“The way we tend to operate is that we tend to have a group of core competencies and enabling technologies, and we look for interesting problems that we think our tools can have some impact on.” Dr. Giorgio said. “Because we do so many things, our lab does not have a single focus, but rather we’re a‘curiosity-driven lab.’ We look for things that we are curious about and that we can have an impact on and then we start doing that.”
His first companies, BioNanovations and PathEx, were focused on sepsis, a bacterial infection of the blood that is the consequence of an infection somewhere else in the body. “The thing that really inspired us to work on this is that in the young and elderly, sepsis is roughly 40% fatal,” Dr. Giorgio said. “One of the reasons for the outcomes being so poor is that it is really hard to do early detection clinically.” The standard test to identify sepsis bacteria takes two days, in which time as the bacteria grows in blood test cultures, it also grows in the infected individual. BioNanovations was all about the early detection of sepsis using a nanoscale amplification technique to identify there was bacteria and the specific strain so an effective antibiotic therapy can begin more rapidly.
PathEx took a device-based strategy in its approach to sepsis, using a physics-like approach to separate the bacteria from the blood. Thinking of it as simply kidney dialysis for bacterial infections, Dr. Giorgio is enthusiastic about PathEx because “the device just works every time, and it’s one reason that PathEx has made tremendous progress. The company has really advanced because the design of the device is so robust.”
What’s distinct about Dr. Giorgio’s companies is that the CEOs for both BioNanovations and PathEx are his former students. He attributes the successes of these students to their propensity to carry themselves in a way not every student does.
“They are really good scientists. They have a solid fundamental understanding of the biology and the technology, but what is equally important is that they have the right personality,” Dr. Giorgio said. “They will stick their hand out and introduce themselves, which is so important when you’re forming a company and looking to develop connections and do networking.”
Dr. Giorgio encourages the nurturing of graduate students who exhibit fundamental, intrinsic capabilities to become entrepreneurs and to keep a dialogue alive in the lab that encourages younger researchers to consider what else they could do with what they’re doing. He also encourages students to attend seminars totally disconnected to what they’re doing. “Be curious, and that’s where you can find connections.”
Part of an active, growing research program within a university that lends itself to the potential of commercializing products by talented graduate students, Dr. Giorgio’s entrepreneurial stories demonstrate that there is opportunity to leverage research into profitable and important ventures.
“We’re at a moment where we are building more entrepreneurs rather than just having it be serendipity.”
The UTHSC LEADS program will resume in Fall 2018.