UA bioengineer blazes entrepreneurial trail

October 20, 2004

By hammersmith

Stuart Williams–part inventor, part pioneer–has become both a fixture and a frontiersman in the changing Arizona biosciences landscape. Chairman of the biomedical engineering program at University of Arizona and a professor there since 1990, Williams is a model for his students, whether they aspire to be lab scientists or applied scientists: After all, he does both with aplomb.

A lab scientist by training, Williams received his doctorate in vascular, cellular, and molecular biology from University of Delaware, and his research activities focus on the development of biomaterials, medical devices, and cell-based therapies.

But he is also an entrepreneur with over 50 innovations and a dozen patents in his pocket. In 2003, he was honored by R&D Magazine for developing one of the 100 most noteworthy tech products of the year–the BioAssembly tool, which one day may be used to repair damaged organs by fabricating human tissue. In addition, Williams has published over 350 journal articles, book chapters, editorials, and abstracts, and is the associate editor of the journal Cell Transplantation.

It is fitting that Stuart Williams’ career has led him to Tucson, an emblematic crossroads of the American West. As a frontiersman in the field of biomedical engineering, Williams has often found himself charting the unknown territory between basic science and entrepreneurship, sometimes solo.

Williams says the roots of his interests in applied biomedicine and entrepreneurship grew out of his family tree: One of his uncles was a physician, and another was an engineer. The engineer had numerous cryogenics patents and had devised water desalinization methods, and he taught a young Williams “how to take ideas to patents to products.”

“I visited his lab and then saw the translation of his ideas through the construction of production plants,” Williams says. “I learned that everything is based on mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and is applied through engineering principles.” Better yet, he says, visiting his uncle’s construction site offered the ultimate biology research opportunity for every kid: catching frogs, toads, snakes, and lizards.

Even as an undergrad, Williams demonstrated his trailblazing tendency: Since bioengineering didn’t exist as a program of study at UD, he structured his coursework to fit his varied interests, simultaneously studying biology, chemistry, and materials science.

In the years following his departure from Delaware, Williams held a postdoctoral fellowship in the department of pathology at Yale Medical School and served as director of research in the department of surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. While at Yale and Jefferson, his research focused on diabetes complications and vascular therapies. But when he arrived at UA, an institution known for its strong cardiovascular research program, he refocused his efforts on the emergent field of regenerative medicine and other cardiac and peripheral vascular disease research (though he still conducts some diabetes-related research). %pagebreak%

But Williams does not consider his distance from Washington, D.C. and Boston, areas widely thought of as two of the nation’s key scientific research hubs, a disadvantage. He acknowledges the high density of universities and research dollars there, as well as geographic access to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but adds that Arizona has remarkable bioscience strengths of its own, strengths that Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap helped identify, including the production of medical devices.

“Those of us doing research outside Megalopolis are doing just fine,” he says.

Still, Williams is acutely aware of just how rugged some of the terrain toward establishing a viable bioscience-driven economy in Arizona is, especially for the individual researcher looking to take intellectual property (IP) to market. And from his experience in the field, Williams advises that faculty members who wish to see successful translation of their discoveries maintain a modicum of control over commercialization of their intellectual property.

But he also acknowledges that Arizona makes this path a hard and “rather lonely situation,” as there are as yet few legal and accounting resources available to such scientists to help establish companies, and potential investors often expect quick returns on investment and a great deal of managerial oversight, neither of which are conducive to a fledgling biotech start-up. So, with his characteristic independent-mindedness, he suggests that researchers “go it alone” by relying on friends, family, and personal finances–a method that he says does work despite its challenges.

At the same time, Williams is encouraged by the changes he sees in the Arizona biosciences landscape. The expansion of UA Science and Technology Park, the creation of ASU’s Technopolis (which helps faculty secure patents for their IPs and provides resources to take their products to market), and the rash of incubators cropping up around the Phoenix metro area and Tucson all signal that moving faculty discoveries to market is a growing priority for Arizona’s larger economic and cultural communities.

Williams credits increased publicity for this, but adds that early financial support–what he calls “true angel investing”–would be immensely helpful in jump-starting this trend in the development of faculty patents and products. An example of a novel funding option he suggests would be a state grant-matching program for projects that have received Small Business Technology Transfer funding.

And for the potential for the biomedical science enterprise to take hold and grow in Arizona, he believes communication is essential, and that public awareness and exposure to bioscience is the key to cultivating a successful regional industry in the state.

“The population of Arizona is hearing about biosciences on a regular basis and we should encourage this communication,” Williams says.

As he looks to the future, Williams is most excited about his part in a project to develop a statewide program in regenerative medicine. As part of that effort, he has designed a clinical cell-based therapy for heart-disease patients–what he calls a “heart patch”–for which he hopes to begin human clinical trials within the year.

When asked whether the applied biosciences are outstripping traditional lab sciences–chemistry, astronomy, geology–in relevance and economic value, Williams answers with his trademark Jack-of-all-trades spirit. He thinks that both basic and applied science are relative and necessary for progress, and that we can go the farthest by combining the lab savvy of Niels Bohr with the inventor’s spirit of Thomas Edison. It is that sort of collaboration that led to such success as the U.S. space program, he notes, and that can pave the way for more.

“But always remember that major technological breakthroughs are founded on basic science and serendipity,” Williams says. And when he’s involved, there is bound to be a little go-it-alone grit thrown in, too.