As the population ages and the cost of health care grows, advances in engineering will be vital to the prevention and treatment of disease. And bringing engineering solutions to medical problems is something Gerry Timm knows a lot about.
An electrical engineer by training and medical device entrepreneur by trade, Timm serves as associate director of external relations with the Institute for Engineering in Medicine. After starting a handful of successful companies, he returned to the U of M in 2003. Here, he offers his perspective on an ever-changing field.
What’s next for engineering in medicine?
It involves developing materials that can correct themselves — tissue engineering, stem cell research, artificial muscle. These innovations are dependent on a good understanding of life sciences and living tissue, as well as a solid understanding of physical sciences. I’m already seeing some evidence of this technology. The next question is how to get artificial organs to gain access to the nervous system.
There’s a multitude of opportunities, it’s just a question of which one is going to really make a difference. Innovation doesn’t hit like a big thunderstorm, it hits like a little pebble in a pond. It takes a lot of pebbles in the pond before it adds up to something.
What challenges might the industry face in the next decade?
The big question that’s on everyone’s mind these days is the course of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is doing its job of protecting the American public, but I think it’s being a little overprotective. People aren’t able to participate in experimental treatments because of standards that are unachievable.
I think a lot of it is an educational thing and it’s already starting to change within the FDA. But it takes time because we have to overcome the emotional response of the public.
What resources do you offer to researchers?
Since 2005, IEM has sponsored more than $5 million in research grants within the university. Seed funding awards for interdisciplinary research range from $5,000 to $8,000. These funds are intended to support faculty who want to make a prototype or do a quick animal study.
We have a bigger grant program, $40,000 to $50,000 per year, that also supports interdisciplinary research, and is typically enough to support a graduate student to work on a project. We hope after researchers get these grants, they can bring their research to the next level and compete for NSF or NIH funding.
Ultimately, we’re here to make connections between industry and academia. We’re always looking for talented researchers to become members of IEM and share their expertise with businesses or partner on research.