An Enterprising Biotechnologist
After spilling liquid nitrogen while freezing off a patient’s wart, John Dobak saw a need for a self-contained cryosurgery system that protected its chilled contents. He became an entrepreneur and based his first company, Cryogen, on this idea; soon after, he founded InnerCool Therapies, which specializes in cardiac and stroke treatments. “I try to understand where the big problems are, where there are unmet clinical needs, and then determine if there’s a way to make an advancement,” he says.
To help meet the needs he identifies, he cofounded the Jakk Group, an “accelerator” company that uses a broad network of resources, such as labs, engineers, and manufacturers, to advance ideas for new technologies to the proof-of-principle stage. The Jakk Group then builds a company around the concept or sells or licenses the rights to it. Current projects include a new heart catheter that employs a microelectromechanical sensor to improve patient response to cardiac resynchronization therapy. The device not only stabilizes the heart’s rhythm but also reports information about cardiac contractions back to the physician. Though this is not yet at the clinical stage, the company has another therapy–for obesity–in phase I clinical trials.
After going for a jog one day, Dobak noticed that the hunger he had previously felt had abated. Convinced there had to be a connection, he identified a specific nerve activated by exercise. A company that is based on this research, Leptos Biomedical, is investigating obesity treatments that electrically stimulate this nerve. Dobak says, “I’m good at the initial development, the initial creative work, and am always looking for new opportunities.”
An IT Idealist
Michael Robertson has learned a lot since TR applauded his creation of MP3.com, a website that gave users remote access to the music in their CD collections. The service perished in a web of lawsuits, and Robertson now recognizes his early naïveté about the complications of copyright law. But he says, “I’m proud that we helped make MP3 a global standard. You can have 20 different devices on which to listen to music. You need an open standard to do this.”
His latest endeavors demonstrate his commitment to that ideal: Linspire offers an easy-to-use desktop version of the Linux operating system; SIPphone is a voice-over-IP telephone service provider that uses the most popular standard for that technology; and newly founded Ajax 13 develops Web-based applications. Robertson has even built a business, MP3tunes.com, that resembles MP3.com, which he sold to Vivendi Universal for $400 million in 2001.
Reflecting on MP3.com, he says, “It was a bittersweet experience. I grew up very, very poor, so to never have to worry about money again is very sweet. However, it’s bitter because I didn’t get to accomplish everything I wanted to do. But it did give me the money to pursue other ideas.” Those include pushing for more open formats. “I want there to be open standards,” he says. “It’s good for society. It prevents monopolies. It’s the world I want for my two little boys.”
A Conscientious Chemist
When we singled him out for his work producing plastics from carbon dioxide, Geoffrey Coates had been an assistant professor of chemistry at Cornell University for only two years. Since then, he has continued his quest to make biodegradable plastics from renewable resources.
Because plastics, typically made from polymers derived from petroleum, play such an important and versatile part in our everyday lives, Coates says, he and his colleagues want “to move away from oil as a building block in plastics, and to make plastics that are environmentally friendly.” Recently he has found success with limonene, the chemical that gives orange peels their scent.
Using a catalyst, Coates combined a derivative of limonene with carbon dioxide to form a novel polymer that breaks down much more quickly than ordinary plastic. In 2004, Coates and two Cornell alumni founded Novomer, a company committed to sustainable chemistry that markets the technologies developed by Coates’s research group. With press coverage from the BBC, CNN, and ABC, a special creativity award from the National Science Foundation, and an Alfred P. Sloan research fellowship, Coates, who is now associate chair of his department, has become a leader in his field.