research image from Junjie Yao's lab
Duke BME Fall 2021 Digital Magazine

Expanding Opportunities for Entrepreneurial Post-Docs

October 5, 2021 | Michaela Kane

The Duke BME Post-Doctoral Entrepreneurial Fellowship program is a new resource for graduates who want to launch companies based on their PhD research. For inaugural fellows Christian Viehland and Stefan Roberts, the program was instrumental in their transition from student to entrepreneur.

Christian Viehland: Creating the Next Generation of Handheld OCT Probes

As a PhD student in Joe Izatt’s lab in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Christian Viehland helped develop a handheld device that uses optical coherence tomography, or OCT. This imaging modality allows researchers to visualize the layers of the retina, and this perspective provides valuable diagnostic information for a variety of eye diseases. Unlike most OCT systems, the new handheld system is portable with a lightweight hand piece, and it is six times faster than current OCT probes. Its speed, weight and portability have enabled the Duke research team to bring state-of-the-art OCT imaging to new patient populations, like pediatric patients, who cannot be imaged using a traditional OCT exam.

Viehland, now a research associate at Duke, knew that this technology would be useful for ophthalmologists and other eye specialists, so when the opportunity for the Post-Doctoral Entrepreneurial Fellowship arrived, he was eager to participate.

Christian Viehland

“I think that technology that has a use as a research tool or as a diagnostic, like our OCT probe, almost has to be commercialized to have value,” says Viehland. “I was excited to use this program and the entrepreneurial resources it provided to learn how I can ensure that this tool moves from the lab bench and into a commercial market, where it can be useful outside the Duke community.”

Because the fellowship provides salary support, Viehland was able to spend his time focusing on applying for and receive an SBIR Phase 1 startup grant. This funding supported the creation of a new prototype, and enabled Viehland to found Theia Imaging, where he now serves as the Vice President of Engineering.

According to Viehland, Theia Imaging’s prototype could be specifically useful to infants and pre-term infants, who can suffer from a retinal disease called retinopathy of prematurity. Because current OCT systems are large and immobile, physicians cannot use them on infants, so instead they need to use a white light exam to screen for the disease. This diagnostic isn’t as accurate as OCT, and it’s uncomfortable and stressful for children.

But with Theia Imaging’s new prototype, physicians could quickly and easily scan a child’s eye.

“This program let me get my feet underneath me. It gives you flexibility to pursue what you want to do full-time and not just like a ‘what can I do in my garage in the evening after work’ project,” Viehland explains. “That freedom was really valuable in terms of getting the ball rolling for a startup.

Stefan Roberts: New Biomaterials for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine

Stefan Roberts PhD’18 worked in Ashutosh Chilkoti’s lab during his time at Duke, where he created a biomaterial with “Frankenstein Proteins” that, when injected could support the growth of new tissue.

“I started my graduate studies with a pure science question. We were interested in protein folding and protein chemistry with no initial ambition toward product development,” says Roberts. “Over the course of my dissertation I realized that we were developing something truly unique with a plethora of utility. It seemed too irresistible not to start a company based on this new technology.”

That realization led Roberts to the post-doctoral entrepreneurial fellowship. The program gave him the support he needed to launch, InSoma Bio, which operates out of Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship’s BRiDGE incubator workspace in the Chesterfield in downtown Durham. Stefan Roberts

Like Viehland, Roberts credits the fellowship for giving him resources, like the incubator space and salary support, as became acquainted with the entrepreneurial world.

“This program gave me time to figure out how to take my academic background, the scientific knowledge I felt very solid in, and translate that to developing something commercially viable,” says Roberts “I was able to take the time to learn how I need to speak to investors, how to pitch, and how to get a small business grant, all skills I didn’t inherently learn as part of my normal graduate studies.”

Since the company’s founding in 2019, the team was able to join the startup accelerator Y Combinator based out of San Francisco, and they’ve expanded their work to see how their biomaterials could be useful for soft tissue reconstruction and plastic surgery applications. According to Roberts, the team has been collaborating with plastic surgeons at the Duke University Medical Center to specifically explore how their biomaterials could be combined with a patient’s own fat as an alternative to implants for breast reconstructive surgeries. The company was also recognized by the business platform Crunchbase.

Roberts and his collaborators are in pre-clinical development and are beginning to outline the timeline and requirements they need to meet in order to begin clinical trials.

“In academia, people are spending years doing research on really interesting ideas, and then they generally have to leave it behind, but some of these ideas have real potential for broader impact,” says Roberts. “This fellowship minimizes many of the risks of founding a startup-up company, gives people an opportunity to take ideas they have ownership of and providing them the time, mentorship, funding, space, and backing they need to go out and make it happen.