Tech & Health

April 26, 2024

Vanderbilt’s Innovation Ambassadors help their colleagues change the world

Within the intellectual powerhouse that is Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center thrives a group of doctors, engineers, computer scientists and others who also are visionaries, inventors and entrepreneurs. 

(iStock image)

Within the intellectual powerhouse that is Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center thrives a group of doctors, engineers, computer scientists and others who also are visionaries, inventors and entrepreneurs. 

Several of these change-makers also donate their time and expertise through the Vanderbilt Innovation Ambassadors Program to help colleagues in their departments recognize and pursue the world-altering potential of their own ideas. 

“We’re like the kindling that gets the fire going,” said Ambassador Bryan Hartley, MD, associate professor of Clinical Radiology & Radiological Sciences at VUMC whose company, Pulmera, is developing novel imaging technology to improve the diagnosis of early-stage lung cancer.

An extension of long-standing, campuswide efforts to encourage innovation and commercialization activities, the Innovation Ambassador Program was launched in 2022 by the Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization (CTTC) in collaboration with VUMC, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and The Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center.

“Having an ambassador program shows that innovation and entrepreneurship are valued and encouraged,” noted Philip Swaney, PhD, CTTC’s senior licensing officer, who co-directs the program with CTTC director and Vanderbilt University assistant vice chancellor Alan Bentley, MS.

When faculty members see their peers “having an impact in this space,” Swaney said, “they feel empowered and supported to act.”

Innovation Ambassadors receive about six hours of initial training in commercialization, intellectual property, entrepreneurship and other topics, as well as relevant university policies and procedures. They’re also kept abreast of new programs and processes that are being rolled out across campus.

The goal is to enable them share with others in their departments the information and resources, including the CTTC and The Wond’ry, that can help them protect and commercialize their ideas and inventions.

Ambassadors commit to serve two-year terms. In addition to communicating what they’ve learned, they meet quarterly to brainstorm ways to boost innovation and entrepreneurship.

An example of their outreach is the Sullivan Family Biomedical Ideator program, launched in January by Ambassador Daniel Fabbri, PhD, director of Informatics Innovation at VUMC, in partnership with the Wond’ry. Program participants learn ways to evaluate the commercial value and tech-transfer potential of their research.

Other examples from the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery are the national Haynes Award, honoring resident physicians who have made notable innovations, and the Haynes Innovation Symposium, which, according to the department’s innovation webpage, “provides practical insights to aspiring innovators on the strategies and pathways toward commercialization and dissemination.”

Launched with the help of Alexander Langerman, MD, SM, the Otolaryngology Department’s Ambassador, both the award and symposium are named for David Haynes, MD, MMHC, holder of the Directorship in Otolaryngology for Relationship Development, and Chief Patient Experience Officer at VUMC.

The brainchild of department chair Eben Rosenthal, MD, the award and symposium celebrate the “best and the brightest of the next generation of leaders,” and highlight VUMC’s innovative work, said Langerman, an accomplished innovator in his own right.

Langerman and Fabbri are among the first recipients of Vanderbilt University’s Innovation Catalyst Fund for innovations they have brought to their respective fields. Established in 2023, the fund helps streamline faculty research into real-world applications.

“The Innovation Ambassador Program provides a great resource for faculty to learn more about inventions and technology commercialization directly from their peers,” said Kenneth Holroyd, MD, MBA, CTTC’s medical director, and lead of the Brock Family Center for Applied Innovation at VUMC. 

“It is an important and growing part of building VUMC’s entrepreneurial culture,” said Holroyd, who also is VUMC’s Vice President for Tech Transfer. “We are looking for additional faculty volunteers to serve from departments that are not currently participating in this program.” 

Of the 20 current Innovation Ambassadors, 13 are primarily affiliated with VUMC, including Shabnam Eghbali, MD, a first-year resident physician in Internal Medicine.

Eghbali, who plans a dual career in medicine and biopharma investment, said she hopes as an Innovation Ambassador to help other physicians in specialty training learn how they can apply their knowledge to affect large-scale changes in health care.

Three Ambassadors, Yiorgos Kostoulas, PhD, MBA, Robert Webster, PhD, and James Weimer, PhD, represent the School of Engineering. Douglas Kojetin, PhD, and Alex Waterson, PhD, represent the departments of Biochemistry and Pharmacology in the School of Medicine Basic Sciences, respectively.

TS Harvey, PhD, co-recipient of a $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study cultural factors in health inequities, represents the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Science.

Ambassador Christopher Vanags, PhD, directs the Peabody Research Office in the Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

“Curriculums available online, reading interventions, all those are licensable, impactful ideas,” Vanags said. The Ambassadors program “is a grassroots approach to building out our innovations, and it’s replicable.”

Indeed, Ambassador program leadership is helping a half dozen other universities launch similar ambassador-like programs of their own, Swaney said.

Vanderbilt has long been a hotbed of invention, thanks in large part to the creativity of its faculty and the support of the CTTC. During the past decade (2014-2023), 61 start-up companies were launched, and 593 patents and 923 licenses were issued, generating more than $286 million in revenue. 

In the 2022 fiscal year, Vanderbilt and VUMC ranked sixth in the country in adjusted gross income from technology licensing, according to the latest survey conducted by AUTM, a nationwide community of university technology transfer offices. In FY2023, licensing revenue topped a record $96 million. 

Of course, technology transfer is more than a revenue stream — it can open the door to inventors who want to help change the world for the better. 

Physicians want to have a positive impact on their patients’ lives. The Innovation Ambassadors show that “they can also have a great impact through innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Ambassador Ryan Buckley, MD, who also directs the Medical Innovators Development Program for Vanderbilt medical students.

Yet “people really need examples, advice and informal conversations with fellow entrepreneurs to be successful,” said Webster, the Richard A. Schroeder Professor of Mechanical Engineering who has co-founded companies that introduced innovations to the robotic surgery and flexible endoscopy fields.

Last year the National Institutes of Health awarded a four-year, $4 million grant to Webster and Charleson Bell, PhD, director of entrepreneurship and biomedical innovation at the Wond’ry, to establish the Mid-South Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH).

Leveraging an additional $8 million in state and institutional matching funds, REACH will extend education, mentorship and financial support for aspiring entrepreneurs to hundreds of community colleges and minority-serving institutions in Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

Some faculty members, accustomed to receiving government support for their research and publishing results in professional journals, are reluctant to leap into entrepreneurship. But unless they take steps to protect their intellectual property, it may never see the light of day.

“Basically, you’re killing it,” warned Ambassador Robert Carnahan, PhD, associate director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, who helped develop business modules for scientists offered through the School of Medicine’s BRET Office of Career Development.

“Most things require a commercial platform,” Carnahan explained, “If (companies) are going to put a million dollars into it, they need to know they’re going to get a return on their investment. If you want to benefit society, you’ve got to put some protections around it.”

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart.

“It is not easy to take a proof-of-principle result from the bench to the market,” cautioned Kostoulas, professor of the Practice of Engineering Management, who has extensive experience as a marketing professional in the semiconductor industry. “Most of the work and expense happens during that transition.”

Faculty inventors don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. By pointing the way to the tech transfer office and investment community, Innovation Ambassadors encourage crucial collaborations that can help turn vision into reality.

“The Innovation Ambassadors program provides a dynamic network for all of those interactions to happen.” Webster said. “By building this into the fabric of what we do at Vanderbilt, we will ultimately better achieve Vanderbilt’s core missions of discovery and translating those discoveries to impact the real world.”

Vanderbilt’s Innovation Ambassadors

Colin Barker, MD

Associate Professor of Medicine

Director, Interventional and Structural Cardiology, VUMC

Barker is an international leader in interventional cardiology and percutaneous heart valve therapies. His research has led to development of devices to prevent strokes and improve treatment of congestive heart failure.

Ryan Buckley, MD

Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine

Director, Faculty Development, Section of Hospital Medicine, VUMC

For Buckley, who also directs the Medical Innovators Development Program for Vanderbilt medical students, innovation is about bringing people together to find new ways to alleviate the suffering of others.

Robert Carnahan, PhD

Professor of Pediatrics and of Radiology and Radiological Sciences

Associate Director, Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, VUMC

A leader in developing monoclonal antibody treatments for a host of viral diseases, Carnahan also is known internationally for his contributions to rational vaccine design, and antibody technology research.

Edward Chaum, MD, PhD

Margy Ann and J. Donald M. Gass Professor of Ophthalmology

Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology

A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Chaum specializes in the medical and surgical management of retinal diseases, with particular interest in telemedicine, translational bioscience, drug development and biomedical engineering.

Shabnam Eghbali, MD

Resident physician, Internal Medicine, VUMC

Eghbali, who worked for two investment funds while in medical school, is co-founder of Theia Healthcare, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and empowering women entrepreneurs and investors in healthcare. Her goal is a dual career as physician and biopharma investor.

Daniel Fabbri, PhD

Holder of the DBMI Directorship in Informatics Innovation at VUMC

Assistant Professor, Biomedical Informatics and Computer Science

Fabbri has developed and marketed tools to improve the security and efficient use of medical records and envisioned an “Ideator” program to evaluate the marketability of faculty research.

Bryan Hartley, MD

Associate Professor, Clinical Radiology & Radiological Sciences

Director of Entrepreneurship, Department of Radiology, VUMC

A Vanderbilt-trained radiologist, Hartley was inspired by his experience as a Stanford Biodesign Innovation Fellow to “take the next step” to entrepreneurship. He inspires others as a contributor to the BackTable Innovation podcast series.

TS Harvey, PhD

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Vanderbilt University’s first Ford Foundation Senior Fellow

Harvey’s research in Guatemala and elsewhere focuses on expanding scientific partnerships, developing innovative technologies, and building local capacities to collaboratively tackle large-scale public health and environmental challenges experienced by vulnerable populations. 

Douglas Kojetin, PhD

Associate Professor, Biochemistry

Kojetin, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2023, uses “structural pharmacology” and computational biology methods to define the molecular mechanisms of drug action and to probe the regulation of nuclear receptors, which play a role in a broad spectrum of human disease.
Yiorgos Kostoulas, PhD, MBA

Professor of the Practice of Engineering Management

Director, Division of Engineering Science and Management, School of Engineering

Kostoulas is a researcher (optical spectroscopy) who also has extensive professional experience in marketing in the semiconductor industry, in software project management techniques, and in licensing and technology transfer.

Alexander Langerman, MD

Associate Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, and Radiology & Radiological Sciences

Langerman is a head-and-neck surgeon and was co-founder of Surgical Explorer, now part of GHX (Global Healthcare Exchange), which operates a platform that enables surgical teams to access remote, medical device support directly from suppliers.

George Nicholson, MD

Associate Professor, Pediatric Cardiology, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt

Trained in interventional cardiology procedures, Nicholson and his colleagues work with biomedical engineers in the design and development of tools, techniques and devices tailored to improve outcomes for children with congenital heart disease.

Chris Vanags, PhD

Director of the Peabody Research Office, Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education

Research Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences 

One of the founding faculty members of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, Vanags helped develop and implement widely adapted STEM enrichment programs.

Jonathan Wanderer, MD, MPhil

Professor of Anesthesiology and Biomedical Informatics

Associate Chief Medical Information Officer, VUMC

Wanderer innovates clinical informatics-driven, perioperative interventions, around the time of surgery. He directs the eStar Physician Builders Program, which supports the devising of  new content and tools for VUMC’s health and information technology system.

Alex Waterson, PhD

Research Professor of Pharmacology and Chemistry

Associate Director for Medicinal Chemistry, Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology

Scientific Coordinator, Vanderbilt Center for Cancer Drug Discovery

Waterson’s drug discovery collaborations span the cancer, antibacterial and antimalarial fields, and include service on the scientific advisory board of Nashville-based Cumberland Emerging Technologies.

Robert Webster, PhD

Richard A. Schroeder Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Professor of Electrical Engineering, Otolaryngology, Neurological Surgery, Urologic Surgery and Medicine

Webster is investigating the use of surgical robotics in ear, nose, and throat surgery, lung interventions, image-guided kidney surgery, and novel treatments for brain tumors, brain bleeds and epilepsy. 

James Weimer, PhD

Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering

A focus of Weimer’s research is cyber-physical systems in health care. He has cofounded companies that developed a non-invasive continuous stroke monitoring system (Neuralert), and novel technology to monitor the risk of postpartum hemorrhage during labor and delivery (Vasowatch).

Lauren Williamson, PhD

Research Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt Vaccine Center

Williamson’s method of stabilizing cell populations that play essential roles in autoimmune disorders won second place in the 2022 Innovation Cup sponsored by the German science and technology company Merck KGaA. She also consults for the biotech industry.

Jesse Wrenn, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, VUMC

Wrenn’s research is focused on applying computer science and informatics methods to improve clinical care. He is part of a team investigating whether a strategy to individualize diuretic therapy will improve outcomes for patients hospitalized with acute heart failure.

Adam Yock, PhD

Holder of the Directorship in Technology and Innovation for Radiation Oncology, VUMC

Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, and Physics & Astronomy

Yock is a medical physicist whose group is developing quality assurance devices and treatment planning software to improve the accuracy and outcomes of radiation therapy.