Bill Murphy is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, and orthopedics and rehabilitation. Murphy and his students develop new biomaterials and uses for biomaterials, as well as new approaches for drug delivery and gene therapy. He and various collaborators have founded two spin-off companies, collaborated with several other established companies, and filed 16 patents based on their technologies.
Q: How do you identify research concepts and ideas that have potential as marketable products?
First, we determine if there is an underserved clinical need. That kind of insight comes from interactions with clinical collaborators. We also ask if the technology is likely to have a unique advantage when compared to other products that are currently on the market. That comes from our understanding of what we and our collaborators in the clinics tell us about the limitations of what’s currently being used. Finally, we have to think about whether or not the technology we’re developing has a practical path to commercialization. That encompasses a series of things: the path to regulatory approval, the size of the market, the number of patients that could be affected by it, and the uniqueness of the technology compared to competing technologies.
Q: How do regulations influence the types of technology you choose to research and develop?
The impact of the technology has to be in line with the complexity of its regulatory approval. We are interested in developing technologies that have a simpler route to regulatory approval, because then there are a broader range of clinical indications where that technology might be a realistic solution.
For example, we have a series of projects going on that involve leveraging components of native blood. These projects range from taking platelet-rich plasma fraction that’s used clinically now and finding ways to more effectively deliver it, to capturing individual proteins from blood and delivering them back to the patient. Because the blood is taken from the same patient being treated, there is the potential that the regulatory path could be simplified, since therapies derived from the blood are processed with minimal manipulation. That means that the therapy can be prepared in the operating room at the surgeon’s discretion. In addition to that, the advantage of working with blood and other patient-derived solutions is that there are many, many factors available that can influence healing. It’s then possible to deliver multiple components simultaneously to stimulate the healing process. Given the regulatory path involved, delivery of multiple pro-healing factors is very difficult both technically and practically to achieve using other technological approaches.
Q: Apart from regulatory hurdles, what unique challenges do biomedical technologies face as researchers attempt to commercialize product ideas?
One thing that’s inherent to the biotech industry is that there isn’t always a clearly defined path for testing a technology. That’s where we need really strong interactions with clinicians, in particular. Really, they’re the end users. The practical issues with the use of a technology have to be considered, as well. For example, we’ve been developing medical devices that can stimulate healing, and we’ve focused on devices like sutures, screws, plates and other devices that are used ubiquitously in the operating room. Surgeons know how to use them and there’s a protocol in place for their use; surgeons wouldn’t require any additional training or new skill sets to adopt the technology. Those practical concerns are hard to figure out until you’ve had detailed discussions with a broad range of clinicians that are involved in treating these conditions.
Q: When it comes to bringing research into the marketplace, what unique insights can business contacts offer to academic researchers, and vice versa?
A really astute businessperson or venture capitalist asks the sorts of questions that don’t often get asked on the scientific side. Questions about the practicality of commercializing a technology, what the pitfalls might be, who the competitors might be, or how much funding and time will it take to move the technology all the way to market—there are a broad range of concerns that our business contacts bring to our attention. It’s introduced to us a whole new set of challenges that we need to address if we’re serious about commercializing products and helping patients. In return, business contacts get a viewpoint on what the leading edge of technology is at the moment. Some of the things we work on in the lab are not designed for near-term commercialization—there are scientific concepts we’re exploring that probably won’t be therapeutic products for another 20 or 30 years. That gives our business contacts a “first look” into what the future of the field might be.
Q: Where do you make connections with the business world?
It varies quite a bit, based on the technology. Particularly in Madison, there’s a network of people who have an interest in biotechnology and biomedical device design. Because that network exists, some of our initial contacts that relate to specific products result in a much broader range of contacts that are more generally related to biotechnology.The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is helpful in connecting us with people—not just in Madison, but elsewhere—who might have an interest in funding technologies or even partnering with us. Also, our clinical collaborators are helpful. Because they have such an understanding of current products, a lot of them become thought leaders in the industry. They’re the sort of people that companies go to when they want to know what the next important technology will be, so they can help us get connected with potential industrial partners.