Dr. Frank Douglas builds a collaborative ecosystem at Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron Featured

8:41pm EDT May 31, 2012
Dr. Frank Douglas builds a collaborative ecosystem at Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron

As president and CEO of Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA), Dr. Frank Douglas has learned firsthand the impact that successful collaboration can have on turning around economic growth. But he says that just because organizations choose to collaborate, doesn’t mean that they know how to do it successfully.

While ABIA’s mission is simple — to deliver value-added, patient-centered innovation and commercialization — achieving its lofty goal to spin out 40 to 50 companies and create nearly 2,400 jobs in Akron in a 10-year period won’t be. Even with founding members that include prominent Akron institutions such as Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Health System, Northeast Ohio Medical University, Summa Health System, The University of Akron and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, enticing health-related ventures to the Akron area has required ABIA to build what Douglas calls a “collaborative ecosystem.”

“Namely we have a system that focuses on identifying patient problems, coming up with ideas to solve those problems, and testing those ideas for technical and commercial feasibility,” Douglas says.

What attracts businesses? For one, companies also want to work with organizations that can introduce them to a team of people working together.

“We talk about the strengths, but if the strengths are isolated in each of the institutions, it’s really not a benefit to a business,” Douglas says. “A business doesn’t want to have to hunt around to find expertise and capabilities.”

So the organization spent its first year putting together platforms and funding collaborative projects to bring together scientists and physicians to develop solutions for patient problems.

“A company can easily see how by coming to ABIA they could access experts, and multi-disciplinary experts, not an isolated expert deep in one discipline, but teams of experts that can address their issues,” Douglas says.

Because the problems in patient care are multi-disciplinary, it takes collaborative teams to solve them. So another key to the collaboration has been helping people in various organizations step out of their own paradigms so that they can recognize areas where working together is beneficial. “We have to accept that hospitals will still be competing with each other, but there are areas that are relatively easy to identify where they may not have critical mass, where working together would make them much more competitive or the tide would raise all boats,” Douglas says.

By leveraging the combined strengths in the Akron area to focus on biomaterial solutions for patients, from the nationally ranking polymer biomaterials at the University of Akron to the area’s leading medical institutions, hospitals and medical schools, there have been many opportunities to share resources, insights and expertise.

An example is in learning through simulation. In April, ABIA opened up a 40,000-square-foot facility, which will focus on educating the integrated health care team as well as early responders through team-based, patient-centered simulation programs. Now separate institutions can use the larger, shared simulation center for collaborative innovation.

“To have a large simulation center where they all could collaborate and that could potentially attract people from across Ohio and across the nation is a great opportunity,” Douglas says.

Recently, the prototype system that ABIA created with the University of Akron Research Foundation won the National i6 Innovation Challenge to receive a sizable grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Early this year, the organization also launched APTO Orthopaedics, the first medical device company created out of the Institute. So far, Douglas says the progress in Akron and on a national level has been fantastic and motivating.

“Those are just examples of the success this collaborative effort has had,” Douglas says.

“The way I look at it is are we being recognized outside of Akron and Northeast Ohio for the things we’re doing, because if we are, then we are likely to attract companies to come to Akron.”

How to reach: Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, (330) 572-7544 or www.abiakron.org

Sharing solutions

With Synergy Seminars, Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron brings together problem owners and solution providers every month to collaborate on a different key problem in biomedicine and healthcare.  Designated as an Ohio Center of Excellence for Biomedicine and Healthcare, the organization’s ability to bring in experts on these topics is helpful in solving problems faster and for better outcomes, says President and CEO Dr. Frank Douglas.

At the seminars, ABIA will typically have an expert speak for 30-minutes about a particular problem a patient has, giving the background, medicine and the science behind it. Afterward there is a 45-minute session with the audience, sometimes aided with a panel to discuss potential solutions.

“A company came to us with a problem saying that they had heard about the Synergy Seminar and asked if we could hold a closed synergy seminar for them,” Douglas says.

After ABIA hosted a two-and-a-half hour seminar for them, the company was thrilled with the solutions that came out of the collaborative problem-solving.

“They said, ‘We got two solutions that we probably would have gotten but it would have taken us about six months,’” Douglas says. “‘We would have visited different experts and hopefully we would have put it together, but here you have this multi-disciplinary group of scientists, surgeons and nurses and two and half hours later, there we were.’”