When it began five years ago, Penn Health-Tech (PHT) was an experiment. It was a trial to see whether bringing engineering expertise into contact with clinicians at one of the nation’s premier academic institutions could actually translate into something that helps everyday people. In a way, it was taking theories from academia and shooting them into the “Mythbusters” lab.
It appears that the experiment paid off.
“It was as if the community was just waiting for the right catalyst to ignite its pent-up potential,” said , PhD, MBA, executive director of PHT.
PHT aims to help turn innovative ideas across the health system into useful technologies and products that solve problems and advance health care. After supporting 60 different teams and providing $2 million in funding on top of hands-on project management, development expertise, and other critical resources for half a decade, alumni of PHT have secured $50 million in follow-on funding from sources that range from government grants to corporate investment.
“At a recent meeting, someone said, ‘No one is asking whether this will work anymore,’” said Reuther. “Now the focus is on how we can optimize and scale PHT to realize the Penn community’s full potential for health technology innovation. It’s huge.”
Reuther’s leadership at PHT officially began just over a year ago. Her tenure started — saying the least — at a time of high energy. Taking charge in the midst of the ongoing pandemic (during which rapid response teams from PHT were involved in COVID-19-combatting efforts), Reuther was now also overseeing a portfolio of projects from the initiative’s early days that were coming of age and securing big-time funding or business agreements. That included a number of maturing ventures like Osciflex — a specialized compression sleeve for preventing deep-vein thrombosis in hospital patients — which is currently undergoing clinical evaluation, and RightAir — a wearable ventilator device for those with COPD — which received a $1 million investment from local venture capital fund BioAdvance.
Here, Reuther discusses what drew her to the PHT role after years in Columbia’s department of Biomedical Engineering, and where she thinks the program will go moving forward.
What appealed to you about leading PHT?
What appealed to me most about the position was a strong foundation, deep resources, and the potential and room to do more, including the opportunity to elevate Penn and Philadelphia as a national hub for health-technology innovation. The University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine clearly had the ingredients necessary for transformative health care innovation and technology development, which includes world-class clinicians and researchers across engineering, medicine, and Penn’s entire campus. It had strong leadership and support at the university’s highest levels — deans, chief scientific officers, health system leadership and the vice provost for research. I also saw substantial investment in resources to support these efforts, including technology transfer and commercialization expertise through the Penn Center for Innovation and a track record of driving and enabling innovation within health care through the Center for Health Care Innovation.
How has PHT been different from the way other academic institutions handle this type of work?
It is not unusual for universities to have funding available to support innovation development and to advance the transfer of university inventions and technologies to commercial applications. This is often referred to as “gap funding” or “proof-of-concept funding.” Our support extends beyond funding and also takes the form of non-monetary support, including providing resources and expertise or connections to get that technology from the bench to the bedside.
As an example, we run a year-long Health-Tech Accelerator program that employs a phase-gate model of project management, where funding is issued subject to the achievement of agreed upon milestones, and teams receive hands-on advising and mentorship. We also host events to bring together the medical device ecosystem at Penn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, including an annual “Idea to Impact” symposium and brainstorming salons. The salons have led to successful collaborations and concrete plans for developing unique technology solutions for unmet clinical needs, such as ones that address the COVID-19 pandemic as well as new devices like those for rapid repair of peripheral nerve injuries, delivering gene therapy, and new transparent, low cost, MRI compatible implants.
We are also fortunate to have a rich ecosystem here in Philadelphia that makes this environment a “living lab” that accelerates developing, testing, and implementing these new technologies. PHT serves as a hub and navigation point for this in a unique way.
What has been your near-term focus for PHT?
In the near-term, our focus has been on building and expanding our team and community, and developing a strategic plan to map our path forward. There is clearly tremendous energy and excitement for technology innovation at the intersection of engineering and medicine across Penn. Successful medical device research and development takes time and we are beginning to see some of the products of our efforts realized, especially the earliest ones, like Osciflex. PHT has had some great traction enabling and empowering health-technology innovation in a relatively short timeframe and I am looking forward to our next phase of growth.
Looking further ahead, what do you see this looking like in five years?
There has been a groundswell of activity at the intersection of health care, engineering, and technology innovation across the university and beyond, including through the Science Center, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and other Philadelphia institutions. Innovation is a team sport, so this interdisciplinary community and proximity to world-class talent across engineering and medicine is something we will continue to cultivate and leverage.
Our vision is that both our current innovators and the innovators developed here will advance health care, improve lives, and benefit society everywhere. We export a tremendous amount of talent to the Bay area, Boston and other health tech hubs. I see us keeping more and more of our talent in Philadelphia as our efforts expand over the coming years.
To enable that vision, we are looking forward to formalizing training opportunities for early-career innovators (such as students, resident physicians, post-doctoral fellows, and trainees at all levels) and cultivating industry and commercial partnerships. We want to ensure that when a clinician, staff member, or engineer has an idea or napkin sketch for a solution, they come to us and we help them bring their idea to life.