One word that might best characterize University of Pittsburgh innovator George Stetten, MD, PhD, with regard to technology commercialization is persistence. After eight distinct product prototypes, three National Institutes of Health grants, another grant from the National Science Foundation, and a potential start-up venture, Stetten has shown that long-term commitment to the process does eventually offer its share of rewards.
Stetten, a professor of bioengineering, has devoted much of his last eight years of research to what he calls the Sonic Flashlight, an ultrasound-based device that provides real-time tomographic images from beneath skin surfaces. Originally a floor-standing device that looked like a giant overhead projector, today’s Sonic Flashlight is handheld and comes with sterile disposable attachments.
While more traditional ultrasound technologies project images from inside the body onto a computer screen, Stetten’s device relects the image directly onto that part of the body, accurately identify- ing, for example, the location of a vein or artery in a hand. While developing his device, he has had to address issues of portability, user needs, image resolution, sterility, and a host of other obstacles to commercialization.
He also has participated in a number of Office of Technology Management (OTM)-hosted commercialization activities, including technology poster showcases and a presentation before OTM’s new Commercialization Advisory Committee. The committee, composed of successful business leaders, local technology-based economic development leaders, Pitt alumni, and other advocates of entrepreneurship, provides constructive feedback on technologies and the commercial opportuni- ties that might exist. Through it all, Stetten has continued to persist.
“Yes, I’ve had to wait, and I’ve gone on to lots of next things” throughout the development process, says Stetten, who also composes and records his own folk rock-style music when he’s not in his lab. “But it’s a lot more than a patent. It pays for my lab; it’s my reputation. With four federal grants, it has been my bread and butter.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent on the underlying technology of the Sonic Flashlight in 2003. The federal grants, meanwhile, allowed Stetten to develop various functions of the technology. In addi- tion, Stetten says he also has been able to publish at least 35 academic articles based on this research and development effort.
Among his latest research projects is developing an application for jugular vein access. He also is working with Roberta Klatzky, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, to study the behavioral aspects of use in the field. He says he often conducts research in partnership with researchers at Carnegie Mellon.
Recently, Stetten and OTM have been working to make the Sonic Flashlight the key factor in a new local start-up company, which then would develop his idea even further for widespread commercial use. Stetten, though, would remain at the University.
“I like the idea, the dream of making it,” Stetten says of his device and the ongoing research efforts that have led to it. “To a certain extent, it would be nice to see it out there. But the business world is a really different world; it has a bottom line.”
Still, he adds, “I like my job and like what I have here. It would be nice if [the Sonic Flashlight] takes off, but if not, I’ll be OK. This is where I live.”