Vadim Backman – Farley Fellow Q&A
Vadim Backman, Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Vadim Backman is director of the Biophotonics Center at Northwestern University. He co-founded two biomedical device companies: American BioOptics LLC, which develops fiber-optic technology to identify patients at high risk for colorectal cancer, and Nanocytomics, which develops nanocytology technology for early cancer detection.
What drew you to biomedical engineering?
I always wanted to do research; ever since I was in middle school, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. That is, after my plumbing career didn’t work out. I wanted to be a plumber when I was six years old.
I was also interested in entrepreneurship early on, in grad school. I was a PhD student at MIT in the 1990s, and entrepreneurship was a fairly important part of the culture, so I was exposed to some good examples. Actually, when I was finishing my PhD, I applied for management consulting jobs in addition to the academic jobs.
When I was a graduate student, what was important to me was not just discovering something new, but making sure that it would make an impact. I think that's the reason why I found biomedical engineering in the first place. When I was an undergrad, I was a physics major. I was learning astrophysics — that's what I thought I wanted to do. But while I appreciated the theory, the intellectual challenge and everything, I didn't see how this could help people today. Yes, every dollar invested in space exploration turns into 10 dollars later on, we have Internet, and this and that, but it's a long journey. I wanted to see the impact.
How did you come to link business or entrepreneurship to your biomedical engineering research?
When I started working at Northwestern I wasn't thinking about commercializing. I knew about it, it was always in the back of my mind, but I wasn't really thinking about it. Eventually I started realizing that we were developing quite an exciting technology for cancer screenings and for better cancer diagnostics. That’s when I started realizing that it's not just enough to publish.
View Vadim Backman's faculty profileBut how do you get your technology to patients? It’s not as easy as you might think. Large medical device companies don’t just license technologies from universities. They expect startup companies to develop and commercialize technologies, and then they may acquire a technology when it is fairly derisked. So I started thinking, I came to biomedical engineering precisely because I wanted to make an impact, and in order for that to happen, someone has to deliver these technologies to the patient. And it looks like it's not going to be the big corporations, because that's not their model. So I realized it had to be me. I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to come and bring my idea to life.
How much knowledge of business practices did you have at that point?
When I was a grad student at MIT, I was interested in how the business world works, so I was taking quite a few business classes — finance, marketing, corporate strategy. I didn't get an MBA, but I took quite a few classes. As a scientist, these classes benefited me because it's an exposure to a different way of thinking. I think it’s important to expose yourself to these different areas; it makes you rearrange your brain to think like these other people. It’s like learning to speak different languages.
So when I start thinking about how I could make a difference, all of this came back to me. And then I said, well, it looks like I have to start a company. I don't consider myself qualified to be a CEO, but I understood something about how the business world works. I had the confidence to do it because I had that basic knowledge.
You sold your first company, American BioOptics, in 2010. Are you still involved with the company?
Yes, we founded American BioOptics in 2006 and sold it to a multinational corporation in 2010, but we retained much of the intellectual property. Under the terms of the contract, we are working with the new owners for a few years — conference calls, that kind of thing. That benefits both sides, because we help them with any technical questions, and we can also ensure that they aren’t expanding their use of the technology beyond the terms of the contract.
Since we retained the IP, we are now working to develop different applications of the same core technology. I would say one of the most important things a new entrepreneur can do is become informed about IP.