NYU’s new program is poised to speed research from the lab bench to the bedside

A robot hand and a human hand touch a human heart.

Engineers interested in using their skills to solve important health issues . . . clinicians seeking ways to improve patient care and outcomes. When the two groups join forces, transformational work occurs. 

To facilitate those powerful partnerships — and to ensure that patients reap the real-world benefits of laboratory research as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible — the NYU Tandon Department of Biomedical Engineering and the NYU Tandon Future Labs, in collaboration with the Grossman School of Medicine and Langone Health, have launched the NYU Translational Healthcare Initiative (THEI)

The initiative will provide generous funding (up to $100,000) and business coaching for teams that work on marketable technology with the potential to make an outsized impact on healthcare. Teams must include at least one Tandon researcher and one Langone clinician. The deadline to apply to the first cohort is October 14, 2022.

Andreas Hielscher, the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Vadim Gordin, the director of NYU Tandon Future Labs’ A/X Venture Studio, who coordinates entrepreneurship competitions at Tandon, and Joel Schuman, a world-renowned glaucoma expert at NYU Langone who co-invented Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) a tool used in almost all modern ophthalmology clinics, explain more.

What does the term translational research imply?

AH: It’s used to refer to research that can move (or translate, in other words) from the lab into patient-care settings. Another phrase that you’ll hear a lot is “bench to bedside.” To give you a history-making example, consider the Human Genome Project, aimed at mapping the entire human genome sequence; that research, conducted in a lab, is now being applied to treat cancer patients in a more personalized, targeted way based on their individual mutations

Closer to home, my own research provides a recent example. More than 200 million people around the world suffer from peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a common vascular problem that is one of the most serious complications of diabetes–but one that often goes undiagnosed because many patients are asymptomatic. We developed a optical imaging system that uses near-infrared light to reveal how well blood is perfusing patients’ hands and feet. This allows clinicians to identify the disease even before symptoms appear, so that patients can receive crucial treatment early.

Why did the Future Labs get involved in the Initiative?

VG: Professor Hielscher was able to commercialize his research and begin directly impacting patient care because he received the needed funding. That’s exactly what we’re aiming to make happen for the teams whose projects are accepted into the Initiative. The Future Labs have always been devoted to shortening the time from idea to real-world impact; we’ve incubated a wide variety of startups focused on AI, digital media, clean energy, and other world-changing tech, and in recent years many of our successful ventures have been healthcare-related.

Can you give some examples?

VG: Sure.  An excellent example is Cresilon, the developer of a gel that immediately stops bleeding and that is now being used by veterinarians; the company, which was co-founded by a Tandon alum, raised $38.5M last year. Then there’s Medivis, the brainchild of NYU Grossman alums who created augmented reality overlays for use during surgical procedures. They recently raised Series A and are currently partnered with Microsoft and Verizon to serve America's veterans with cutting-edge medical technology.

The list goes on: Mana Health, which created a healthcare-data platform, was acquired by Comcast in 2018, and Polaris Genomics, which focuses on the issue of PTSD, has raised well over $2 million.

All of these companies went from seed funding to seven-figure capital with the help of the Future Labs, and, more importantly, they’re improving medical care for countless patients.

Why is the medical school involved?

JS: Physicians interact with patients every day and often know exactly what would make a big difference in patient care. But they usually lack the engineering and technical skills to know what is possible. On the other hand, engineers have many ideas for “cool” technology, but often don’t know what would have a substantial impact on healthcare. My own work is a great example of what collaboration between these two groups can accomplish. Early in my career as an ophthalmologist, I worked closely with James Fujimoto, a biomedical engineer at MIT, who pursued new high-resolution optical imaging methods. Together we developed and patented optical coherence tomography (OCT), which has revolutionized how physicians assess eye diseases. Almost every clinical opthalmologist in the country now has an OCT system in his office.

Now that everyone is excited, is there anything else they need to know?

AH, VG, JS: Keep in mind that translational research is team research; it can’t take place in an ivory tower or be done by someone working by themselves. That’s why each eligible team must include at least one engineer and one clinician.

Additionally, there are important inflection points that occur as an initial idea is being developed into an actual product. We want projects far enough along so that with the benefit of this seed funding they could be commercialized or licensed within two years or so. We want to see patients benefiting as soon as possible!

Projects that seek to fill unmet or unaddressed healthcare concerns really get off the ground only when a clinician realizes that an issue he’s facing might be solved by technology and reaches out to someone who can help develop that technology; conversely, an engineer might conceive of a biomedical device or platform in the lab and call on a clinician for input and data. 

NYU presents the perfect environment for that type of collaboration, and we’d love to see more of it.


To learn more, visit engineering.nyu.edu/research-innovation/entrepreneurship/nyu-translational-healthcare-initiative