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Education & Healthcare: Collaborating on the Path to Innovation

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Beebe Healthcare and Nanticoke Tidalhealth have stopped non-emergency surgeries due to pressure from rising COVID-19 hosptializations and staffing shortages. | PHOTO COURTESY UNSPLASHED/ARTUR TUMASJAN

Collaboration between disciplines to accelerate the development of new technologies has been widely embraced in Delaware. And nowhere is that spirit of entrepreneurship more evident than in the fields of education and healthcare. Colleges and universities serve as incubators for healthcare startups, and healthcare systems partner with educational institutions to develop tomorrow’s medical researchers and new health-care solutions.

Start with the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences. The college is located inside the Tower at STAR, which houses on its ground floor healthcare clinics along a long public corridor, with students engaged in patient care, research and product innovation.

“I’ve even been a research subject, as a former athlete,” says Michael Smith, the college’s director of strategic initiatives and partnerships. “Physical research is located right across the hall from physical therapy.” Smith rattles off a handful of active research programs in the college:

  • Teaming up with the National Institute on Aging, faculty member Christopher Martens has determined nicotinamide riboside, a naturally occurring dietary supplement, can enter the brain and possibly help alter metabolism in pathways involved in Alzheimer’s and similar neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Doctoral student and former gymnast Lily Lin is part of an interdisciplinary team awarded a $2.4 million NIH grant to investigate multi-scale tendon damage.
  • Another doctoral candidate, Paige Laxton, is working to promote personal health gains through leisure activities for people with intellectual disabilities living in residential group homes.
  • An auditory project underway is geared to finding out how musical selections might impact children with autism.

Of course, it’s important that healthcare research, wherever it is conducted, is translated into better healthcare practices in a clinical setting, and Delaware has strong healthcare companies that do this. For example, at Beebe Healthcare in Sussex County, seven surgeons working at two robotically assisted surgery centers operate on up to 20 patients a week.

“I tell patients, I only have two hands, but the machine has four,” says Beebe surgeon Mark Facciolo. “In the past, some hernias could not be fixed. Now they can, and the surgery takes less time, which means less time the patients are under anesthesia.” Additionally, robotically assisted surgery results in less tissue scarring, and patients have quicker recovery time, less blood loss, lower risks of infection and, in 86% of cases, go home sooner.

However, that’s just scratching the surface of innovation in education and healthcare. At Delaware State University, entrepreneurship in various fields, including healthcare, is being fostered at the Delaware Center for Enterprise Development, which includes the Garage makerspace and a food innovation lab.

ChristianaCare, the biggest employer in Delaware, has long been at the forefront of cutting-edge research like gene editing. In 2022, the health system rolled out a so-called “collaborative robot” that can assist nurses with non-clinical tasks like deliveries, freeing them up to provide more care and patient education.

Cosmos Pharmaceuticals: Ensuring Medication Adherence

Like many young entrepreneurs, Alexander Colton and Joseph White saw an urgent unmet need to be filled when they founded Cosmos Pharmaceuticals in 2019. But for the two students fresh out of William & Mary University, this unmet medical need was also personal.

“I have a brother who was addicted to prescription medicines,” Colton says. “Fortunately, he’s okay now, but Joe and I also had a fraternity brother at school who died of a drug overdose. We knew there had to be a better way to monitor adherence to addictive drugs.”

This conviction set the two on a quest to help people become compliant with their drug regimens and help physicians treating them monitor that compliance. There is a huge need — according to Colton, prescription opioid abuse in the U.S. claims 128 lives every day and is a $78.5 billion problem.

In spring 2022, Cosmos received a Delaware EDGE (Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion) Grant for equipment needed to commercialize the product and for office space at the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus.

Cosmos’ first product — a universal drug bottle-cap called “FortisKap” — began tests this spring with patients who were prescribed pain medication. The product seeks to use electronic monitoring to keep patients from becoming addicted to their medications, and the cap itself is a marvel of engineering design. Placed by pharmacists on a patient’s pain medication, FortisKap:

  • Activates a biometric security system using a fingerprint scanner that blocks access to everyone except the patient,
  • Contains a usage tracking mechanism that monitors and records bottle fill-level and time-ofopening readings to evaluate medication adherence, and
  • Has an encrypted micro-drive that captures and stores this data.

Additionally, the cap is easy to open once the fingerprint is recognized — something that’s especially important for patients who have problems with hand strength. The cap is also compatible with the pill bottles of all major U.S. pharmacy chains.

“The data can be transmitted in real time to the prescribing physician,” Colton says, allowing the doctor to intervene if a usage problem is detected. “Our point of entry into the medical system is the healthcare companies,” Colton continues. “They receive grades for patient adherence, so this technology is very important to them as well.” Once a healthcare company signs up, they decide which physicians will prescribe FortisKap for which cohort of patients.

Although the incentive driving the invention is preventing addiction to pain medication and overdoses, Colton notes there are other types of drugs where FortisKap monitoring could be advantageous. “There are three areas where we see the advantage of using FortisKap — pain, psychiatry and cardiology. With cardiology it’s to ensure adherence, where it is tailored to reduce readmission to the hospital of non-adherent patients” — those who are lax in taking medication.

“It may also be used with patients who have dementia and with any patient who may forget to take their medicine,” Coltran says, “and it would also let a patient know if they had already taken a dose of the medicine.”

As a startup, Cosmos is still soliciting investors, he says. “In August, we hope to raise another $1.25 million.”

Corrixr Therapeutics: Aiding Cancer Therapy

For several years, ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute has been a research leader, especially using CRISPR gene editing techniques by which the genomes of living organisms may be modified. Late last year, the institute spun off part of that technology by creating its first commercial biotechnology startup — CorriXR Therapeutics. The sendoff came with $5 million in seed financing from ChristianaCare Ventures and Brookhaven Bio.

For Eric Kmiec, CEO of the new venture, it was the continuation of many years of work, but one in a new setting. “Our lab has been working in gene editing for 30 years, mainly in the human cell sector,” Kmiec says. “Now we’ve developed a molecular medicine with a wide effect on solid tumors, starting with squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.” If successful, Kmiec says, the medicine has wider applications.

“We decided to go after one of the deadliest targets — a part of lung cancer treatment — rather than going broadly,” he says. “We are after what we think is an achievable end point in our first clinical trial whose target is knocking out the gene that prevents other therapies from working. We’ve been working five years on this, but we were slowed down some by COVID.”

The medicine will not be a “cure,” Kmiec emphasizes, noting that cancer researchers seldom talk of cures. Instead, it would reduce the amount of therapy needed to extend life. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has been very involved in the clinical strategy. “The FDA supported the approach of a broad-based platform with a smaller initial indication,” he says. “We’ve carefully undersold what we’re trying to do.”

The drug, Kmiec says, has a very intricate name, but “in shorthand, it’s called ‘R34G,’ and we have a very strong patent position. This year, we expect to have our second formal meeting with FDA and the third meeting in 2024, at which time we hope for the IND (investigational new drug application) needed to begin a clinical trial.”

Parallel to product development in any startup is accessing funding. “We’ve completed seed funding, and series A will be next,” Kmiec says, at which time his executive job may be finished, allowing him to go back to the research bench. “I will probably remain on the board,” he says, “but the plan is to get a new CEO who knows more about fundraising.”

A.I. Whoo: Analyzing How People Move

When University of Delaware graduate computer student Matthew Saponaro wandered over to STAR Campus and met up with some College of Health Sciences students, they immediately recruited him for computerized assistance on some of their projects.

Then, a UD project involving the electronic monitoring of foot traffic in a public park led to Saporano becoming the go-to guy for park traffic research in several states. This encouraged him in 2019 to launch his own data company, A.I. Whoo.

A.I. Whoo is primarily a process company, as the technology it offers can be adapted to practically any field. Saponaro describes it as an ethical way to capture data that will provide meaningful insights to improve or change human or animal behavior. And, he claims, he gets results 25 times faster, on average, than traditional methods.

The problem, he found, was that collecting the data — such as on foot traffic in parks — was labor-intensive, in spite of the advanced technology, and so he was hiring, then letting go, employees as he took on and finished jobs.

Now, aided by an EDGE (Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion) Grant from the state, A.I. Whoo is working on how people move. “We are trying to develop software that will provide gait assessment, which a physician at a distance could assess, prescribe treatment for and later see how physical therapy is working,” he says. How people move, and how to electronically capture and analyze that movement, can be applicable for patients with sports injuries or those recovering from joint replacements.

“For example, for sports teams, we’ve captured on camera how individual players do certain tasks, such as jumping, and then analyze it,” he says. Players who perform poorly or more slowly, Saponaro explains, have to work harder than the others to compete and hence are more likely to have stress and other injuries if not monitored properly.

“Our product, which will probably need [Food & Drug Administration] review, can be used on existing hardware like sports watches, so no new equipment will be needed,” he says. “It will measure gait and other movement the same way a thermometer measures temperature.” Saponaro also explains that while he isn’t currently looking for investors, he is “looking for connections to grow into this new space.”

And about that name: “We asked our young son what to name the company,” he says. A jubilant “Whoo” won out.

Wilmington University: Reinventing the Way Law School Works

There are close to 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, so you might be forgiven for asking: do we really need another one?

For Phillip Closius, dean of the new Wilmington University School of Law, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” “If you take the top 40 schools away, you’ve got about 160 schools running a paradigm that’s not sustainable,” he says. “We’re trying to change that paradigm.”

The WilmU School of Law proposes to do this in a few different ways, starting with the cohort of approximately 35 students expected on campus for the Fall 2023 semester — the school’s inaugural one.

One way: cost. “For years, there have been writings and analysis about the problem of student debt. Law school tuition is very high, and students have to borrow to pay it. It’s not unusual for students to come out of law school with $400,000 of debt,” Closius says. At WilmU, annual tuition is $24,000 for the full-time program (three years) and $18,000 for the part-time program (four years). In addition, WilmU pledges not to raise tuition for existing students.

“If you come to WilmU, you know in advance what the full cost is,” he says.

An affordable education has always been a central pillar of WilmU’s philosophy, as has diversity, Closius points out. “Three of our eight faculty members are African American,” he says. “There are a lot of schools that are talking about diversity, but we’re committed to it.”

WilmU’s commitment to an affordable education for a diverse student body is especially relevant in the context of the Delaware Bench and Bar Diversity Project, an effort spearheaded by the Delaware Supreme Court to have Delaware’s legal profession more closely reflect the state’s population. “We talk a lot about breaking down barriers,” Closius says. “We want to make education as available as we can to anybody who has an interest.”

The program’s flexibility — with a parttime track that requires a commitment of just two evenings a week — is another way the school aims to reduce barriers for those interested in studying law.

WilmU’s law school also aims to change the paradigm through its curriculum. “In just about every law school in the country, the first year is required and the second and third years are all electives,” Closius says. “That has produced law graduates who aren’t taking what I consider to be critical courses.”

At WilmU, law students will take two years of required courses, including ones that will familiarize them with estate and family law. While Delaware is well-known for its robust landscape of corporate lawyers, “we’re being told by a lot of experienced people that there is a shortage of lawyers who deal with the problems of real people,” Closius says. “I would hope that we can help solve that problem.”

For its inaugural academic year, the law school will occupy existing space at WilmU’s Brandywine Campus. But the school is already making plans for a new building that will house the law school starting in 2025. “That building is designed to hold about 500 people, and I think that’s where we’re going to be in terms of size,” Closius says. “I see no reason for us to ever be really big.”

Still, Closius hopes the school can have an outsized impact. “We expect our students to be part of their community — through internships, pro bono work and public service,” Closius says. And while some students may choose to leave Delaware after earning their degree, he expects that many won’t because “they’ll find the community welcoming. We know that what we’re doing is going to make Delaware more attractive.”

Eastside Charter STEM: Building a Community Classroom

For Chemours, the eight-year-old, $3.35 billion chemical company, funding education in the sciences begins at home, just a few blocks across Brandywine Creek from its Wilmington headquarters.

In February, ground was broken on a 24,000-square-foot Chemours STEM Hub on the campus of EastSide Charter School, whose students for 25 years have racked up test scores surpassing the state averages. Chemours’ sponsorship consists of $4 million in funding from its ChemFEST school partnership program.

“At Chemours, we try to find ways to do well by doing good,” says Alvenia Scarborough, SVP for corporate communication and chief brand officer. “We have made a commitment to invest $50 million in communities wherever we are located, and our biggest objective is to push STEM education in under-resourced communities.”

When completed, the Chemours STEM Hub will house ESCS APEX (Middle School Honors) and STEM programs as well as a makerspace, 3D printing, engineering tools and other STEM-related accessories. Additionally, the facility will keep hours beyond the school day, doubling after school as a community center. It will also be open on weekends and during the summer with programs in mentoring, robotics, coding, chemistry, biology, renewable energy, and Science Olympiad competitions.

“We want the youngest students to see how real-world chemistry and science applications work hand in hand,” Scarborough says. “If they fall in love with the sciences early on, that love will stay with them when they become adults. Chemours sees this as our future workforce pipeline.”

Scarborough further states that “as a part of our ChemFEST program, we see this as a model for every community where we operate, whether in Delaware, in West Virginia or North Carolina. And we want to position programs like this not only for Chemours, but as a model to help position our industry.”

“We are stronger and better when we work together,” said Aaron Bass, CEO at EastSide, during the groundbreaking. “And in a state with an impressive amount of STEM career opportunities, we do not have community spaces to prepare our citizens for these opportunities.” He also noted that “parents will have the opportunity to gain job skills and interview with STEM-focused businesses. The Chemours STEM Hub will be where community members, corporations and educators can unite to transform our state.”

Plans call for the hub to be completed by the start of the 2024-25 school year. In addition to Chemours, the center has received support from the Delaware federal congressional delegation, the Delaware General Assembly and Barclays bank, among others.

DCED: Innovating in the Garage and Kitchen

Lillie Crawford, director of the Delaware Center for Enterprise Development (DCED) at Delaware State University, wears a lot of hats as she shuttles her attention between entrepreneurs in the kitchen and the garage. “

The Garage” is the name given to the innovation and collaborative makerspace within the College of Business at Delaware State University in Dover, and the kitchen is the Food Business Incubation Center (FBIC), a fully licensed, professionally equipped commercial kitchen.

“We have lots of programs for entrepreneurs in the Garage,” Crawford says, “and we have students working on new businesses including with clothing lines, vending machines, a popup checking device that corresponds to hospital procedures used for monitoring patients with blood clots, and activities in e-sports. And we have quite a few food businesses at the kitchen incubator.”

The FBIC staff works with the Delaware Health and Social Services Office of Food Protection for guidance in the shared-use food facility, giving prospective business owners a development facility for food production without each business having to invest in the overhead associated with owning and operating a commercial kitchen.

The kitchen is also open all year, offering flexible hours and affordable, discounted rates based on usage. It is equipped with 18 stovetop burners, a gas convection oven, 50-quart mixer, 12-inch slicer, table-top mixer, worktables, walk-in refrigerator and freezer, ice maker and lockable dry-storage units. Inspected and approved for food processing, it is suitable for value-added product manufacturing, catering and food production.

Crawford says the DCED is staffed to provide technical assistance in all areas of business startup and development — from pre-venture basic knowledge for starting a business to providing free or low-cost workshops and training to support business success and growth. “Then we assist entrepreneurs with access to markets and networks,” she says.

“We also do workshops for the Community Navigator program, which is a hub-and-spoke program, and the DCED is one of its seven spokes,” she says. Founded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Navigator program provides opportunities to assess strengths and to deliver collaborative solutions to help business owners overcome their challenges by connecting them with SBA resources.

“Unfortunately, we lost funding after about 15 years for our Junior Entrepreneurs in Training or JET program,” Crawford says, referring to a program designed to foster entrepreneurship among Delaware public school students. “But hopefully that can be restarted sometime in the future. However, we are participating in the Verizon Innovative Learning for STEM [initiative], which provides three weeks of summer camp here at the university, with two separate camps running simultaneously. It’s important we show students that STEM is the wave of the future.

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