He’s an entrepreneur in action

Some of Stuart Williams’ innovations could one day help preserve your sight, protect you from anthrax or let you regrow heart tissue.

By Inger Sandal

If the UA could just clone the leader of its biomedical engineering program, it would have a solid tech-transfer program.

Williams, 51, is one of the university’s most entrepreneurial faculty members with 50 disclosed innovations, a dozen patents and a new business based on his research. He’s also one of the university’s best mentors, offering advice to help faculty and students patent their ideas and start companies, said Richard Powell, UA vice president for research and graduate studies. One favorite tip: When you’re trying to interest a company in your research, ask them to fly to you rather than the other way around. It’s less intimidating that way.

Williams was drawn to the UA a decade ago from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where he helped develop a technology transfer program. He raves about Tucson, where he has built a network of colleagues – all highly entrepreneurial.

When Louis Breton was trying to launch his biotech company, Tucson-based
Cellz Direct Inc., Williams introduced him to people and helped him with the process.

"He was able to guide me extremely well through the early obstacles the company faced," said Breton, whose firm supplies human and animal cells for research.

Williams, whose emerging field applies engineering concepts to human health, does not see himself as a home-run hitter. "Rather than swinging for the fences," he said, "just a nice simple swing to get yourself on base is all you need."

Spend some time with Williams and you get an idea of what it takes.

His days often start with 4 a.m. conference calls to East Coast researchers and companies. He watches the sun rise from the back patio of his Foothills home, then spends hours in his windowless office and laboratories in the College of Medicine. Most evenings he reviews volumes of documentation required by the UA, federal regulators and potential investors.

If he gets a good idea at 2 a.m. – which isn’t unusual – he gets up and logs on.

Disclosing innovations to the university, a laborious process, helps Williams organize his thoughts. He has more than 50 disclosures in various phases of development.

While many professors shy away from the patenting process, Williams admires Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with creating a patent system that brought innovation into the open.

Williams’ motivation is discovery, he says, not money.

"The primary reason is because of the science," he said. "Some science needs a business associated with it to move forward."

Many of his ideas are rooted in personal passions: His early research was in heart devices, because his father died of heart problems. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – he nearly took the flight that crashed into the Pentagon – he stepped up his research of how to protect the public from bioterrorism.

He believes some of the best ideas come from collaborating. He and another researcher invented a glaucoma shunt – scrawled on a napkin – over lunch. A company is interested, and federal approval could come within a couple of years.

He meets often with vascular surgeon Dr. Scott Berman to discuss new ideas for surgical devices that are less invasive and speed patient recovery. Berman is the medical director of the company Williams founded – Pare Technologies Inc.- to design and produce sterilization systems that would kill virus and bacteria before they infect patients.

Williams has filed a patent application that, if approved, would be owned by the Arizona Board of Regents, then licensed to his company.

He’s also leading students in cutting-edge research, such as growing human tissue to repair damaged muscle, especially the heart.

While he wants to get ideas from universities to the public as quickly as possible, he understand it takes time.

Drugs can take more than a decade and $500 million to $800 million to develop, with the odds that just a few will be unbelievably lucrative. Devices – one of his specialties – cost less, but can still take years for FDA approval.

"You have to have the ability to stick with it," Williams said.

He’s got plenty of time to do that. In the world of research, at age 51, he’s in the prime of his career.

* Contact reporter Inger Sandal at 573-4115 or [email protected].

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