By Professor Freddy Boey
Deputy President and Provost, Nanyang Technological University
Recipient, 2013 President’s Science and Technology Medal

My interest in biomedical engineering research started during my late sister’s battle with lung cancer.   I realised there was a lot of unmet needs in medical treatment that perhaps an engineering approach could help solve. I started talking to more doctors about other unmet needs and I guess we have not looked back since.

In biomedical engineering, clinicians correctly diagnose the illness and propose a therapy.   The engineer steps in to provide a solution to help confirm the diagnosis and improve the therapeutic process.   In my case, my team, with our knowledge of materials and how they function when transposed into biomedical needs, solve problems in ways some clinicians may not have been trained to visualise.

For example, we have known about materials with shape-memory effect for decades and applied it to automotive and industrial arenas.   We have now applied it to the human body – for example as a stent that changes into the desired shape at body temperature without mechanical assistance.

I have always championed getting scientists, engineers and doctors to talk about unmet needs.   That’s when ideas take flight and produce many speculative ideas distilled into a workable one over many discussions. One of my fastest inventions to be commercialised was a surgical tissue retractor.   It took all of three months from first discussion to licensing because all the right people were in the same room at the same time. If there is one thing I must say, it is this: Doctors, please talk to non-doctors, and engineers, please talk to doctors!

In bringing solutions to market, one must remember that investment money is only a means to an end.   Many start-ups think they need a lot of money, but if they have the willingness to move their ideas fast they will use less of it.   I have seen many good ideas get stuck in the mud because they could not move fast enough – including a couple of mine. Ideas have shelf-lives and many of them degenerate from great to negligible in a few short years.

I also encourage inventors to not bank on just one idea – because not every great idea will lead to commercial success.   One has to learn to compromise – an idea is only worth as much as people are willing to pay for it.

To succeed completely, there needs to be the right inventors, investors and start-up management group.   Objectivity is always important too, so my projects are funded and run by others. A great inventor is not necessarily a great CEO – volunteering to be your own CEO may actually work against the eventual success of the very company founded.

I am a total optimist who likes to ask “why not?”.   It gets my adrenaline rushing to try to make things work when it is deemed previously impossible, especially within the human body. However, one should not dilute oneself with too many projects at any given time, but instead be prepared to focus.   Every idea is like a baby: spend time to grow the baby and the chances of survival for the baby will be higher.

We joke that our biomaterials team in NTU is like Federal Express - focusing on delivering other people’s drugs to the right place, at the right time - “where you want it, when you want it!” I’m proud that one of our teams comprising Professor Subbu Venkatraman of NTU’s Materials Science and Engineering and Associate Professor Tina Wong of SERI, plus chemists, biologists, doctors and engineers, recently became the first in the world to address the major eye disease glaucoma using a nanomaterials delivery approach. The novelty here is that by delivering an existing drug in a new way, we improved the efficacy by orders of magnitude.

We are confident that we can also produce similar breakthroughs for management of other diseases in a similar way. That is the kind of challenges that engineers are well suited to solve, together with clinicians.

A Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Prof Freddy Boey has distinguished himself internationally with a strong track record of generating bioengineering and nanomedical technologies that can be commercialised. Prof Boey will be speaking on translating research to reality at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress, 5-6 September 2014.

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