Q&A With: Michael Weiner
We talk with the CEO of Biophan Technologies, a cutting-edge developer of biomedical device components
PHOTO: BIOPHAN TECHNOLOGIES
Michael Weiner co-founded Biophan Technologies, of West Henrietta, N.Y., in December 2000 with Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the first successful implantable cardiac pacemaker. Biophan's primary mission is to develop and commercially exploit technologies for biomedical device companies, including technology for enabling devices to be safe and compatible with MRI diagnostics. Weiner serves on of the board of Biophan, NaturalNano, and several privately held technology companies.
Spectrum Online: Where is the medical device industry going?
Michael Weiner: Well, a lot of different directions in my opinion. For one thing, miniaturization is enabling many more implantable devices. Improved power systems and improved telemetry and sensing is going to further expand this revolution we’ve had in the last 45 years since the first successfully implanted pacemaker. That’s on the implantable side. What Biophan is doing has to do with making the devices compatible with MRI, safe with MRI, imageable with MRI, which is an important subset. Also, we're developing batteries that we hope to have powered by body heat instead of chemicals, for longer lasting capability and for miniaturization. So there’s a lot happening on the implantable side--and all kinds of additional applications.
Who would have thought that there would be a pacemaker approved for obesity, for example? Or who would ever have imagined that a medical implant could actually stop an advanced-stage Parkinson’s patient’s tremors? These are miracles. The same thing is now happening in the interventional medicine world, and there are revolutions happening in the non-invasive world as well. Biophan has acquired the Myotech Myo-Vad. This is a revolution in medical capability, because it can take an arrested heart, when all the standard care fails and the person is about to lose their brain cells after 8 to10 minutes without a heart pumping. This device can restore full cardiac output in under 3 minutes. That’s a revolution. It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of people a year.
Now, there’s a whole other aspect to that technology that may be able to reverse, through remodeling, congestive heart failure. That’s the biggest single killer and the biggest sinkhole of cost and expense in the United States health-care system. It’s amazing, there’s one rather remarkable innovation--and I’m personally involved in it. There are many others. It’s an amazing time. Then there’s some very interesting predictions that are perhaps science fiction or very futuristic. Ray Kurzweil, who’s on our scientific advisory board, is saying that the convergence and the acceleration of technology is coming at such a rapid pace that within perhaps 30 or 40 years we’re gong to have major biomedical augmentations to humans, far beyond anything we’re thinking about, to the point where it will change society. I don’t know about that. It would be nice to get even halfway there. But it’s certainly quite remarkable what’s happening.
SOL: So where does Biophan fit into the picture?
MW: Well, we like to say that we don’t make medical devices, we make them better or safer. We try to improve through innovation to make major advances in innovation. For the most part, these are technologies that can be adapted by a large manufacturer to make their device more competitive, more efficient, or some combination thereof. We have 144 U.S. and 46 international patents pending, issued, or licensed, which is a very big number for a relatively small company. So we’re fitting in, and we do a lot of innovation.
SOL: You’ve referred to your company as a ”development leader.” What is a development leader?
MW: Well, it’s sort of what I just described. Most smaller companies are doing maybe one platform, and they often get venture capital, and then they’re built to be sold and it’s make it or break it. That’s not us. We’re doing multiple innovations across a number of fronts for the cardiovascular industry, with the batteries, all sorts of implantable devices, contrast agents, diagnostics. And the other thing about ”development leader” [he smiles] is that it’s sort of a buzzword that our investor relations people like to use.
SOL: What is the role of R&D, scientists, and engineers in a young company like Biophan?
MW: It’s critical, because much of what we do is identifying a problem and saying we want to solve it. In the case of MRI safety and image visualization, we identified a problem that companies like Medtronic, Guidant, St. Jude, Biotronic, Siemens, General Electric and others have been working on for years. We hold the vast majority of the patents, and we’ve solved all the problems. That was our R&D group that helped do that, along with some third-party innovators.
Why is it that we were able to do that? Well, we’re really good at it, and we were really committed to solving those problems. We weren’t diverted by all the day-to-day things that big companies have to do every day. We just decided to do this, and we have an extremely gifted team. R&D is essentially what we do.
So for us, once we invent it and patent it, we then have to convince a big customer to adapt it, and we have to serve them through the tech transfer process, which is part of our specialty. Universities invent a lot of wonderful things, but it’s a little harder for them to transition them into industry, because they lack that intermediate development that we have.
SOL: How many scientists and engineers do you have at Biophan?
MW: We run sort of what we call an extended enterprise. The total staff is in the twenties. But just the MRI visibility project alone, has over 30 people, one third of them Ph.D.s. So we bring teams together--consultants, professors, engineers, scientists, third-party consultants--in these extended enterprise teams. So altogether on our projects, there are probably over 50 people, but we try and do it with a core team of full time and with a lot of affiliations.
This avoids a lot of bureaucracy, and it allows more diversity and a certain homogeneity. We have people with advanced physics degrees, electrical engineering degrees, people who know chemistry, the pharmaceutical world. As a team, it becomes very potent. That’s why we love working with Boston Scientific so much. They’re cross-divisionally very collegiate. We like working with them. We hope to work with everybody.
SOL: How do you see engineering contributing to improving quality of life in general--and health care in particular?
MW: We’re not going to go anywhere without engineering. In fact, Duncan Moore, one of the deputy advisors to President Clinton for science affairs, who works at the University of Rochester, is very concerned because of the decline in the number of engineers in the United States. It’s significant, it’s unfortunate, and engineering is essential to these innovations and to practically applying them.
So whatever wonders we have, we got because of a lot of engineers working on them. They certainly are going to be the key to the future. And engineering is going to be the key to a lot of other things, so there’s a lot of contention with a shortage of engineers. They certainly are going to be vital to the future of biomedical engineering, no question, and the future of implantable devices, in particular. Fortunately, there’s enough money, success, and good reasons to be in the business of biomedical devices that I hope and expect it to continue to be well populated, even if there’s an overall shortage. It’s fundamentally important.
About the Author
Kieron Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City.