From the Director: Guest Post – Dean as Innovator

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This is a guest post from Vikas Sukhatme the Woodruff Professor of Medicine, dean of the Emory School of Medicine, and chief academic officer of Emory Healthcare. He came to Emory in late 2017 from Harvard Medical School, where he was chief academic officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the Victor J. Aresty Professor of Medicine. These are excerpts from a broader interview:

How has your own research evolved over time?

I started out as a basic scientist, asking questions about biology and gene regulation in particular. That has changed in the sense that I now am more of a translational researcher—I like to look for the applications of what I might discover or do. What I really enjoy most is connecting the dots—finding connections, between clinical problems and scientific advances within an area and, especially, across areas.

How important is innovation at an academic medical center like Emory, and what are its primary drivers?

Innovation is a key part of what I and many others in the School of Medicine would like to see as a hallmark of the school. And I’m making no bones about it.

What is most important is that people connect with each other, that they see by working together, we can solve the big problems that are out there. That’s a necessity these days. No one person or one group knows it all. Furthermore, some of the best ideas come from people who’ve never worked in the field. The challenge for all of us is this: how do we drive such a culture of innovation, not only in medicine but across the University?

You’ve mentioned some new initiatives the School of Medicine will be involved in, with partners from across the university and beyond, to foster innovation and industry partnerships. Could you elaborate on these plans?

Many efforts are underway. We have the Emory Healthcare Innovation Hub, supported by the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, with faculty and staff largely from the School of Medicine. That is devoted to digital health and opportunities for working with companies in that area. The Hub is building an ecosystem of diverse companies in the healthcare space that come together, using Emory as the place where they can interact. That’s a newer concept and one we hope will attract industry to work with us.

There’s also the Biomedical Catalyst program, which started last year and is jointly funded by the School of Medicine and the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. We’re looking for novel ways of interacting with industry as they develop new devices and products, right from the get-go. The Catalyst program encourages Emory SOM faculty to be entrepreneurial, providing them guidance along their journey and working closely with the university to establish a venture fund to seed novel Emory technologies. It is also interacting with the Biolocity program in our Biomedical Engineering Department.

A third program around innovation is an interface with the university at large, setting up a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It’s being funded jointly by the Provost’s office, but also largely by three Emory schools: Goizueta Business School, Emory School of Medicine, and Emory College. This will be largely directed toward learners—students and trainees.

We’re also working closely with Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer, looking at how we can be more efficient in terms of getting our ideas out there and bringing entrepreneurs into Emory to help us decide what is worth patenting, for example. Conflict-of-interest rules have been looked at, comparisons made to other leading universities, and we have made some changes. At the end of the day most drugs and devices are developed by industry, so we do need to have an eye on how to best commercialize innovations. The OTT Office also provides valuable guidance to faculty seeking to commercialize their inventions.

In fact, you and your wife, epidemiologist Vidula Sukhatme, started a center to encourage innovation, is that correct?

Yes, we have recently established the Morningside Center for Innovative and Affordable Innovation, to address ideas that show promise but lack financial incentive. This center grew out of a non-profit called GlobalCures that Vidula, an epidemiologist with expertise in healthcare information systems, and I started a few years ago. Essentially we recognized that there are scientifically promising medical ideas that are not being developed because of a lack of financial incentive. Such “financial orphans” include existing drugs that could be repurposed for a new use, nutraceuticals that are generally regarded as safe, or lifestyle changes. Our major focus in the Morningside Center will be on repurposed drugs and cancer. We will bring to bear the full power of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, in which the Center is housed, working closely with Winship scientists and physicians as well as those at the Rollins School of Public Health and in the School of Medicine broadly. We are also reaching out the Center for Ethics, Goizueta Business School, Emory Law and Emory College of Arts and Sciences. We are hoping for new treatments to emerge and novel approaches to conducting clinical studies in the community, since the interventions are low cost and widely available. The compact even in the short-run could be significant. We are grateful to the Woodruff and Morningside Foundations and the university for their support of this venture.

What are the I3 (or I-cubed) awards?

We’ve set up a number of awards to promote innovation called the I3 awards, which stands for Imagine, Innovate, and Impact (I3 is actually a branding logo for the SOM!). Some of the awards we call the I3 Wow awards. I’m asking our faculty to showcase their best ideas. The I3 Nexus awards are meant to bring people together—ideally, folks who have not worked together before, around a problem that they think they can solved by collaborating. The I3 Venture awards are for ideas that are likely to be of successful commercially. We have also I3 awards on the education side.

You’ve said that, in addition to transparency, efficiency, meritocracy, and inclusivity, there needs to be a “little quirkiness, as well as humor and humility.” Can you elaborate?

I think it’s absolutely essential given the seriousness of our work, especially work that directly impacts patients, that we have these qualities in place—just to keep our own sanity, frankly. A little quirkiness helps you think outside the box. Humor allows us not to take ourselves as seriously as we sometimes are apt to do. Humility, we learn very quickly as doctors. If somebody complains to me, I’ll say, let’s take a walk and go over to the wards, and we quickly realize how limited our medical knowledge really is and how ineffective many of our treatments are. I would say it’s the single most important quality to cultivate in physicians. Humility also allows you to connect with people because if you’re humble, you will be curious and receptive to learning. And curiosity is critical if you are going to find new solutions.