Build upon your strengths

Yesterday I was at Stanford University and a key message came through in all three of my meetings, which was ‘build upon your strengths’.

The Department of Bioengineering was founded in 2003. But what I think is particularly unique about Stanford’s approach is that prior to the formation of the Department the cross-Faculty Bio-X was formed in 1998 and Biodesign in 2001. In most other universities the research theme has driven the formation of the Department, Stanford is different.

In my post about Johns Hopkins I mentioned that the Department of Bioengineering was part of both the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering, which I thought was unusual. This is also the case at Stanford and the Department is conveniently located between the Medical and Engineering buildings.


The building that houses the Department of Bioengineering was built and is managed by Bio-X. Known as the James H. Clark Centre, the building celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, but it still looks brand new. The custom designed to encapsulate and encourage the interdisciplinary working that Bio-X is founded on. There are core facilities in optogenetics, imaging and microfluidics as well as a number of Faculty-specific labs. It was described to me in one meeting as a ‘science mall’ with windows on the inside opening into the central courtyard and different wings of the building dedicated to different groups such as the Department of Bioengineering in the South East corner, Bio-X Head Office in the South West and Biodesign on the East Wing. There’s also a restaurant, cafe, auditorium, seminar rooms and numerous meeting spaces on every floor.

Bio-X is a unique Stanford University initiative that promotes interdisciplinary life science research. Founded in 1998 Bio-X brings together biomedical and life science researchers, clinicians, engineers, physicists and computational scientists to unlock the secrets of the human body. There are many democratic layers to Bio-X with strong leadership from Heideh Fattaey who alongside her colleague Hanwei are great examples of the transferable skills, understanding and added value a PhD brings to their roles.

One programme of particular interest to me was the seed funding initiative. With $150,000 dollars of investment up for grabs for interdisciplinary teams of Stanford Faculty with the caveat that there must be at least two different Departments represented in the team that applies for funding. The funding last for 2-3 years and since the launch in 2000 the program has already seen a 10-fold return on investment. The model has been so successful that industry are now funding their own seed funding initiative, tapping into the interdisciplinary and translation talent of the Stanford Faculty.

From one innovative initiative to another the Biodesign programme at Stanford was the first programme to recognise the need for researchers to be trained in innovation, entrepreneurship and design alongside academic engineering, medical or science education. With an expanding range of programmes from Fellowships to graduate student and undergraduate student courses. The Biodesign programme/ process was created by Professor Paul Yock and Dr Josh Mackower. Paul Yock is an inventor and cardiologist who navigated his own way through the minefield of IP that faces an inventor with the ambition of getting a medical device to market. At the same time that Paul was navigating this medical device minefield Josh Mackower was running an internal innovation programme at Pfizer. Through this meeting of minds the idea of an innovation training process came about which resulted in the fellowship and the beginning of biodesign.

To find out more about Biodesign and bioengineering at Stanford check out this video from Professor Paul Yock, co-founder Biodesign and co-founding Chair of the Department of Bioengineering.

“Cool inventions aren’t cool unless they make it into patient care.” – Paul Yock

What is great about the Stanford Biodesign approach is that they are keen to help others implement or take inspiration from the process and programme that they run, not just in the USA but also internationally.

The Department of Bioengineering, is unusually the youngest of the three initiatives I have covered in this blog. Bioengineering is described as ‘fusion of engineering and life sciences’ by the current Chair Professor Norbert Pelc. They are both engineering with biology and engineering for biology, with applications including healthcare, environment and energy. They have a growing undergraduate major in bioengineering but also support a number of customised majors available through Stanford School of Engineering in Biomechanical Engineering and Biomedical Computation. They also offer courses across medicine, law and business.

I think we can all learn something from the Stanford approach, you don’t have to do things a certain way just because they have been done that way in the past. The best approach is one the pulls upon and utilises your strengths.

‘Til next post.

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