In 1997, Yoel Fink, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, invented something theorists had insisted was impossible: a “perfect mirror” that reflects many wavelengths of light from any angle with almost no energy loss.
A paper suggesting the technology could be used in everything from fiber optics to medicine soon appeared in the influential journal Nature; a breathless New York Times article declared Fink’s breakthrough “may be the most significant advance in mirror technology since Narcissus became entranced by his image reflected on the surface of a still pool of water.”
But the world saw little of what came next: a 10-year struggle to bring the perfect mirror to market as a laser microsurgery device, with Fink navigating a gantlet that included reluctant MIT administrators, starting a company, and finding money and a manufacturer to produce the exotic material.
After his company finally got off the ground — its laser scalpel has now treated over 100,000 patients — Fink returned to MIT to teach materials science and now runs the school’s elite Research Laboratory of Electronics, which explores everything from atomic physics to biomedical engineering. And now he’s used that position to launch a program for postdoctoral researchers that was directly based on his tortured experience of seeing his college research through to commercial development.
Dubbed the “Translational Fellows Program” and currently in its second year, Fink’s initiative essentially pays selected postdocs to spend one day each workweek pursuing the business potential of their research.
“I went through hell and back to make my company work,” said Fink, who is determined to save MIT postdocs from the same ordeal. “This is the first time that one of MIT’s main research labs has said, ‘the process of getting technology out of the lab and into the market is our business.’ ”
A distant benefit for MIT is that the school could earn royalties on the fellows’ business success. But more important for both the university and postdocs, the program gives these researchers a career option besides competing for a professorship, the traditional track for postdocs. MIT employs around 1,450 postdocs, but only 30 or so faculty positions open up at the school each year, one example of an extreme bottleneck that has become a problem at many universities.
Postdocs in the fellows program talk with potential customers and draw up business plans that they then defend, “Shark Tank”-style, before specialists brought in by Fink. The researchers also get crash courses in business basics: how and when to incorporate, hire, find a manufacturer, and court investors.
Above all, Fink hammers on postdocs to zero in on products that have an obvious market, rather than developing a broadly applicable technology. It’s a lesson he learned with the perfect mirror invention; the material had dozens of potential uses, but investors just wanted one product to sell.
The early results are promising. Last year’s initial class of six fellows spawned two companies and several patents. Now, MIT is thinking about expanding the program so that more of the 1,450 postdocs on campus could apply.
Columbia University and Tufts University have already asked MIT how they might duplicate the program.
At Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT postdoctoral researcher Andrea Fanelli (left), is testing a technology that can painlessly calculate the pressure of the fluid that surrounds the brain. He tried the technique with Dr. Brian Walsh. Photo: David L. Ryan, Boston Globe/Staff.
One of the 16 different groups of postdocs in the program this year has synthesized a shape-shifting molecule that causes the HIV virus to effectively mutate itself to death and is conducting clinical trials on the potential cure.
Another researcher has figured out a method to mass-produce incredibly tiny and fragile nanometer-scale semiconductors, which could lead the way to a new generation of powerful — and power-efficient — mobile devices.
Still another is developing a painless and noninvasive technique for doctors dealing with head injuries and illnesses to calculate the pressure of the fluid that surrounds the brain. The method involves analyzing blood pressure and ultrasound data and could spare patients from a gruesome procedure that involves drilling through the skull.
The postdoc developing the technique said the MIT program is helping him figure out if his business idea has a future.
“It’s scary, because there are so many external elements that can make commercializing the device complicated, like regulations and financing,” said Andrea Fanelli, who is testing his technology at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But this program teaches you how to look at the market in a smart way and find the best path forward.”
Stan Reiss, a venture capitalist at Matrix Partners in Cambridge, is one of the business experts Fink calls on to give postdocs encouragement — or a reality check.
“A lot of the ideas from [university] labs tend to be science first, market second, which is backwards for starting a company,” Reiss said.
“As a researcher or a professor, your job is to make one of something, and that’s cool to you. But to commercialize, you need to make thousands or millions of something, and the practical reality of going from one to thousands tends to be underestimated.”
Fink said that too many promising projects that soak up MIT research funds end up collecting dust, or the technology ends up being licensed to large companies that hoard intellectual property but don’t use it.
“What could be more noble than having someone take their discovery and turn it into a world-changing product?” Fink said. “Suddenly, postdocs become a group that is empowered and energized, not just to find a job in an industry, but to create an industry.”