Medical PioneersMar 17, 2023 12:00PM ● By Dwain Hebda
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
As an emergency physician, Dr. Michael Wadman is constantly problem-solving on the job and, as chairman of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s emergency medicine department, he’s also charged with research and developing an innovation mindset in others.
“When you work in an emergency department, you continuously have challenges that you’re confronted with. Finding better ways of doing things is almost a daily thing for us,” Wadman said. “In an area where we have limited resources, we’re trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently, how to do things better, and ultimately, we’re looking at what is best for patient care.
“In our case, we’re also an academic department of emergency medicine. One of our missions is research and scholarly work. We are supposed to create new knowledge that is different from the traditional academic model.”
But while physicians and medical researchers have ample inspiration, most lack the training, experience, or general understanding of what it takes to fund, develop, test, and manufacture new medical devices, drugs, or other inventions and bring them to market.
That’s where UNeMed comes in. As the technology transfer and commercialization division of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, founded in 1991, UNeMed works with inventors at UNMC, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Nebraska Medicine to help guide the process from idea to its logical conclusion.
“The pathway starts when a researcher does some work or a physician comes up with a better way to do something or finds a new drug or imagines a new device,” said Michael Dixon, UNeMed president and CEO. “The next step really is where we jump in and we take a look at it from two major perspectives. We look at it from a patent perspective. Can we protect it? And then the second thing we look for is marketability. What’s already out there? How does this fit?”
If both of those initial questions are satisfied, UNeMed assists the founder with everything from patents to research and development, to forging partnerships with investors and outside companies to fully develop the concept. Each project faces its own challenges to develop—especially in the medical field where the time from cocktail napkin idea to market product is typically measured in years and at great cost.
“The university gets research dollars, but the National Institutes of Health does not pay us to develop things,” Dixon said. “To go from an idea to an approved drug is often over $1 billion. Even devices are hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a lot of money.
“As far as the time it takes, one of my colleagues in a different department has often said all of his overnight successes took 10 years. To me, that has become our theme. It’s just a really long path, especially in bio-medical innovation...a lot of two steps forward, one back.”
Progress may plod, but UNeMed’s track record shows the department is well-utilized by prospective inventors. According to the group’s latest annual report, the group saw 105 new invention notifications from 170 unique inventors in 2021, rounding out the most active five-year period of the past 20 years. Between 2017 and 2021, more than 500 new inventions have been introduced—over 100 more than 2012-2016, and more than double that of 2002-2006.
In 2021 alone, UNeMed reported 117 active licenses, 40 products on the market, and 161 total patent applications. It was also credited with spawning seven new startups. The organization’s efforts generated $2.15 million in revenue, as well as $1.46 million in sponsored research. Its 102 U.S. patent applications and 26 U.S. patents awarded that year were both records for the organization.
Dixon said several factors combined to provide the level of activity and success UNeMed has enjoyed over the past few years, not the least of them being the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially as people went home, we thought all of our numbers were going to go down, when in fact the first two quarters after the shutdown were the two busiest quarters ever,” he said. “And it wasn’t what we expected; it was researchers who didn’t work on infectious disease coming up with new ideas for better nasal swabs, better isolation chambers. And all of these ideas had value.”
One product, Microwash, exemplifies innovation. Wadman and Thanh Nguyen, assistant professor of emergency medicine, conceptualized a safer and less painful means of testing for infectious diseases compared to nasal swabbing. After attracting investors, Microwash is currently working through manufacturing logistics.
Nguyen is effusive in his assessment of UNeMed’s help and expertise on Microwash, one of 62 ideas he’s floated during his career.
“One thing I’ve learned while working with UNeMed that has been the most valuable is being able to look at your idea from different angles,” he said. “Everyone incubates an idea in their head and it kind of becomes your baby. You don’t want to hear any nay-say about it. For that reason, we either cultivate it in our brain and never let it grow or we hold it so close to the chest we never see that maybe it’s not a good idea or it needs some tweaking that would get it to become a great idea. That’s where UNeMed comes into play.
“Now, if I come up with an idea, I don’t wait a long time trying to incubate it in my head. I submit it to UNeMed right away and let their experts look at it. I used to jokingly say I held the record for the highest number of crazy ideas submitted to UNeMed, but it wasn’t until last year that I actually found out I’m second, by one. Most fall into the category of ‘needs more research,’ but I’d say 20, maybe 25% of them fall into the category of ‘good idea’ where we can start looking around for partners to incubate this forward.”
Visit unemed.com for more information.