Innovator: Dr. Lisa Jennings
Innovation: A new class of implantable drug-delivering devices to improve patient outcomes and lower costs of care by reducing complications associated with surgical procedures; and a multi-service specialty laboratory and direct marketer of clinical trial logistics to the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, as well as public and private institutions at the forefront of clinical research.
Website: aristemedical.com; cirquestlabs.com
by Lance Weidower
As a clinical professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Lisa Jennings has a far-reaching impact on the scientific and medical communities in Memphis.
Her work as founder of CirQuest Labs LLC and co-founder of Ariste Medical Inc. takes Jennings to the front of innovation in Memphis. The two Memphis-based biomedical companies put science into action for the benefit of the healthcare industry, filling a major gap in the process.
Jennings co-founded Ariste Medical with Tim Fabian, the Harwell Wilson Alumni Professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery at UTHSC in 2007. The business develops drug-delivering surgical implants to prevent infections, thrombosis, scar tissue, and other common causes of device failures.
CirQuest Labs is a multi-service specialty laboratory and direct marketer of clinical trial logistics to the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, as well as public and private institutions at the forefront of clinical research.
“CirQuest fills the gap in the pharmaceutical and device industries,” Jennings says. “The last several years they’ve downsized the research and development departments. There are fewer people who can bridge the research. We bring that expertise. We understand the biology. We help them run the clinical trials. It’s an interesting niche to be in. Typically there are academic labs that know the science and then companies that are clinical research organizations that are good at doing testing and getting results back to clients, but not many companies that bridge the two.”
Started in 2008, CirQuest Labs helps in the early stages of drug development to increase the chances of having a safe and effective drug for patients that also reduces costs. The company performs testing for studies that are conducted in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia.
As a professor at UTHSC, Jennings became an internationally recognized expert in the area of platelets and clotting. There was a healthcare movement in the 1990s to add drugs that treat patients with cardiovascular disease in an effort to reduce the risk of having an event or preventing a second one from occurring. And Jennings began having more opportunities.
“After awhile it became clear to me it was time to focus my academic position on basic science and training of graduate and medical students,” she says.
She stayed at the university running the academic lab and collaborating with other faculty on campus as she took the pharmaceutical contract work to CirQuest Labs in 2008. A year later the company hired its first employee. Today, it has a staff of 14.
CirQuest Labs works with pharmaceutical and medical device companies of all sizes. Many of them, in fact, are Fortune 500 firms, Jennings says.
“We have a unique capability, plus the fact we are in Memphis with FedEx and we have the ability of either sending out kits for getting samples for trials, or receiving samples from clinical sites for testing,” she says. “Our storage facility, along with FedEx, gives us the unsurpassed capability to receive samples and store them for short- or long-term periods.”
CirQuest Labs is Good Clinical Practice compliant, meaning it meets higher standards of quality, reliability, and integrity of data collected.
“We can run clinical samples that can be reported to physicians and recorded in a patient file,” Jennings says regarding the importance of the GCP compliance. “These are very important credentials to have because the industry wants to know we have the best practices in place, that we’ve met criteria with little to no corrective action.”
If operating CirQuest Labs wasn’t enough, as co-founder and co-manager of Ariste Medical, Jennings is at the forefront of leading the technological development of drug-device combination products.
Ariste Medical has developed a new class of implantable drug-delivering devices to improve patient outcomes and lower costs of care by reducing complications associated with surgical procedures. That includes ways to remedy surgical infections, including a vascular graph closure that has a localized release of drugs that are known to prevent scar tissue.
They disclosed the invention to the University of Tennessee Research Foundation who in turn filed the patent. The company was formed in 2007, and in 2011, $1.3 million was raised to get the company going.
In the past year, Ariste Medical raised $4.6 million from an investor to continue development, testing, and preparations for commercialization of a new combination product to reduce risk of infection after hernia surgery.
That money is being used to scale up the manufacturing process to do the required U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing, with the hope of gaining approval by the third or fourth quarter of 2016 with official product launch in 2017.
Along with CirQuest Labs, Jennings says she is happy about the impact both are having on the local workforce.
“We’ve generated a lot of technology-related jobs in Memphis. People who graduate now have an option to do technical and high-level science. We’re hoping the company grows and we can continue to keep that in Memphis and provide jobs in the transitional biology sector. And hopefully having CirQuest in Memphis may attract other industries to the city. … It’s a win-win situation to have a company such as CirQuest in Memphis that can provide these services to our university colleagues who are doing the research to the industry at large.”
Jennings recently transitioned from her full-time tenured professorship so she can devote her time and focus on CirQuest Labs and Ariste Medical.
But that doesn’t mean she’s moving on from UTHSC.
“I have accomplished 30 years of service at UT,” says Jennings, who began as an assistant professor in 1985. “The university has been a really good career for me. I can’t imagine a better experience or better academic career than what I’ve had. I’ve worked with great students and great faculty at UT and at the University of Memphis. It prepared me for moving into these entrepreneurial opportunities.
Founders: Brett Norman and Clayton Plymill
Innovation: A system of sensors and software that collects data – moisture, nutrients, minerals, temperature, wind speed – and analyzes it, allowing the farmer to manage crops remotely and more efficiently.
by Richard J. Alley
With weather patterns becoming even more dynamic these days, and with recent droughts in places like California reinforcing our dependence on water for food and life, the need for innovation in agriculture is paramount. Add new seed technologies to the mix, along with the rollercoaster of available labor, and farming has become increasingly complex.
The startup AgSmarts is looking to “close the loop” between the automation of industrial and commercial spaces, and the need for supplemental irrigation in an agronomy that boasts an ever-increasing economy of scale with acreage in the thousands.
Drive east on Walnut Grove Road from the concrete complexes of Christian Brothers High School and Baptist Memorial Hospital until the road gives way to Shelby Farms Park on your left and the fertile land of Agricenter International on the right. There, you pass fields of corn and soybeans, and it’s among the maze of office suites, expo centers, and showplaces that you’ll find cofounders Brett Norman and Clayton Plymill.
In an engineer’s version of Santa’s workshop, AgSmarts’ elves wield soldering irons and voltage meters in an effort to change the way farmers everywhere go about their day-to-day business. With sensors and software developed and patented by AgSmarts, a grower can get real-time readings from the soil on moisture content, temperature, mineral content, and nutrients, as well as rainfall and wind speed. That data is sent wirelessly to a mobile phone, handheld device, or desktop computer.
The current model collects this information and data and, Norman says, allows farmers “to configure the farm and their field to have very specific scenarios set up, or models whereby the data that’s coming off the field is laid-over . . . to make it very relevant to what their cropping system and their environment looks like.”
Norman and Plymill met in 2007 while working in the industrial controls industry and the markets of building automation, oil and gas, and manufacturing automation. “Machines making decisions on when to heat and cool a space, when to move a robot, when to open up a valve to allow liquid to flow through a pipe,” explains Norman. Environments in those industries are changing at a rate too quickly for humans to physically manage. “It wasn’t feasible for a human, or even a team of humans, to manage a 100-story building and open up a thousand dampers. When I understood conceptually how this technology was taking environmental feedback to help humans make better decisions, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really powerful across a lot of different industries’ and the first one that just intuitively hit was agricultural irrigation.”
The innovative slant the team is bringing to the agriculture space is in the ability for fields to drive their own decisions, and the ability for the producer or farm manager to allow that environment to dictate what it needs when it needs it. Yields will be boosted and resources of labor, energy, water, and nutrients minimized to optimize that crop’s outcome.
“This is a software that really complements your seed technology’s hardware because the seed is being built and genetically modified to withstand different environmental conditions or be able to thrive in hotter, dryer climates,” Norman adds. “The challenge for a seed technology company is that once that seed leaves a growing facility or test plots, I can’t control what happens. It’s built to be a racehorse under these scenarios, but it ends up being an old nag because it didn’t get the water it needed or the nutrients. Well, this is a feedback loop that allows that strategy to be dynamically followed. In the hands of the right producers or crop consultants or agronomists, they can have that seed thrive and meet its potential.”
The long-term vision for AgSmarts is artificial intelligence, and for the system to run and manage itself based on what it knows, and to continually learn about its environment.
Fundraising efforts began in earnest in early 2014 when Norman traveled the country looking for capital. The problem he found was that “venture capital did not play in the ag space” and he was spending his time explaining farming basics to potential investors. It has changed in that short time, due in part to the concentration of venture capital in Silicon Valley and the drought faced by California, and AgSmarts is riding that wave. One of the first people they’d reached out to was Jan Bouten, a partner with Innova Memphis, who watched the fledgling company from the periphery. Once a few strategic investors — including two USDA general counsels, commodity brokers, and farmers — came on board, enough momentum was built that Innova wanted to become involved.
“That happened pretty quickly that we went from prototype to pilot to commercialization this year,” Norman says. “Our first delivery of units was in March of this year to John Deere. We put units in their stores. And then we continued to sell to other dealers, consultants, and producers.”
Today, AgSmarts’ sensors are mainly found in the Delta and across Georgia, Virginia, Illinois, Texas, California, and Arizona. They’ve also been contacted by a micro-credit lender in Kenya setting up half-acre plots with centralized irrigation management who is interested in the price point and flexibility of the product.
As populations swell and droughts persist, efficiency in farming becomes more crucial. From the Agricenter in East Memphis, a team of engineers and agronomists is innovating at the way farms are managed and, with it, the way the world thrives.
Innovator: The Levitt Shell
Innovation: Fifty free concerts held in an outdoor venue of historic and cultural importance to the city bringing the community together from disparate neighborhoods and with an eye to diversity of race and socioeconomic conditions. The renovation and programming of the venue was a catalyst to nearby economic development as well.
by Richard J. Alley
In 2003, when the next phase of the Overton Park Shell was just a glimmer of hope, the subject of a conversation at a nearby restaurant, Broad Avenue was still a dead-end street, the Sears distribution center in Crosstown was the largest blight on the cityscape, and Overton Square was a ghost town of mostly boarded-up storefronts.
That lunchtime conversation at the Brushmark Restaurant at the Brooks Museum of Art among Katie Smythe, Barry Lichterman, and Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch of Levitt Pavilions, was carried on the wind, just over the hill to a crumbling, neglected, yet important piece of Memphis cultural history.
The Levitt Shell (as it’s now known) opened in September 2008 with its first free concert and is a lot of things today. It is first and foremost a gathering place for the community. It is a venue for free concerts with the ability to showcase many diverse genres of music. It is a historical stage once graced by the likes of Elvis Presley who performed what many consider the first rock-and-roll show in 1954. But it is also an economic engine.
“All of our performers get paid and get paid a very fair wage,” says Lichterman, president emeritus of the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion Memphis Inc. “One of the things we had to convince people of [in the beginning], was that it’s safe to go into this area of town. Overton Square was boarded up and the current owners have come over and told us this is one of the reasons they realized this was still a very viable area of town to do business in, because they can see the success of the Levitt Shell.”
The Shell is the hub, and the development of those areas at its spokes — Broad Avenue, Overton Square, and the Concourse at Crosstown — is testament to the innovative nature of being first.
The mission of the national nonprofit Levitt Pavilions is “to strengthen the social fabric of America” and to “transform neglected outdoor spaces into welcoming destinations where the power of free, live music brings people together and invigorates community life.” There were only two such venues in 2004 when the process of saving the Shell began in earnest.
Today there are eight pavilions (the name “Shell” was retained due to its iconic stature in the city), but Memphis is unique mainly because Memphis needs such a site more than any of the other cities. Pasadena doesn’t have the history of economic and racial tensions of Memphis. Nor does Denver; or Westport, Connecticut; or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It is what executive director Anne Pitts describes as “that one Memphis experience” when she looks out from the stage on any given night of the run of 50 free concerts during the spring and fall season. “It’s the kids in front of the stage, that is the most powerful example of what we’re all about and what we do. Kids are so much easier to lose their inhibitions, so you see kids of every race, every neighborhood playing together, and they just gravitate to each other in front of that stage. But you’re seeing that in the audience as well, seeing people sitting side by side and knowing that they come from different backgrounds, they have a completely different set of experiences, and all of that is just falling away, and here is one group of people representing one connected, united city.”
This coming together is by design. Pitts was hired just four weeks before the kickoff of the first season and spent that time, and time since, going into every possible zip code in the city to share the gospel of free music. That work has paid off, the people have heard, and crowds today average 2,800, up from the 1,100 average seven years ago.
The opportunity for community-building was a vision seen by almost everyone involved from the beginning. Lichterman, the cause’s torchbearer since the beginning, saw an immediate buy-in from the city council, the parks department, the other Overton Park stakeholders, and from the big-name donors he’d need to get the funding not provided by Levitt Pavilions.
Renovation of the Shell ran $1.2 million with the city putting in half, Levitt Pavilions providing 25 percent, and the rest raised from private donations. To continue to operate, the organization relies on another unique model of having no gate, seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations, and with only one major fundraiser each year. And, of course, passing the hat — or, in this case, the bucket — which sees upwards of $65,000 per year collected on the lawn.
The Shell is owned by the city, the Friends acting as conservators with a 25-year lease and an option for the same length. Where other such pavilions around the country rent the space from their cities, holding concerts, then handing the venue back over when finished, Memphis’ Shell is maintained year-round by the Friends.
The Shell celebrates its 80th birthday next year and with that celebration comes a capital campaign to makes sure it will endure another 80. With the success of the past years of concerts, the buy-in from the community is surely a given.
“The concept of what we were asking people to invest in,” says Pitts, “was a brand new idea and that was ‘We’re going to turn this community around. First invest in us and we’re going to take that investment and we’re going to invest it in the community, we’re going to bring the community out here, we’re going to show them that they belong, that this is all for them, that we can be a connected city.’”
Innovator: Chuck Dunn
Innovation: Eliminating the spread of hospital-acquired infections with a machine that emits an automated measured dose of UV lights from a solitary position in a hospital room, ensuring 99.99 percent pathogen reduction in a single cycle, and removing the threat of human error.
by Lesley Young
When Dr. Jeffrey Deal returned to the U.S. on the last flight from Liberia on August 31, 2014, he went straight to the hospital with an infection.
Deal did not have Ebola. Instead, he had something equally as dangerous — a resistant staph infection.
It was then that Deal knew that all the work he had been doing with Memphis entrepreneur Chuck Dunn was not in vain. “Seven-hundred thousand people go to a healthcare facility for treatment and come out with a new infection. Seventy-five thousand of those people don’t go home at all,” Deal says.
Dunn is the president and CEO of Tru-D SmartUVC, and together with Deal, they are working on eliminating the spread of hospital-acquired infections with an invention created by Deal close to a decade ago.
Deal, with the help of his brother, David, came up with a machine that transmits UV-C light in a measured dose to disinfect all areas of a room, including nooks and crannies. UV-C light, which is man-made UV light, performs double-strand breaks to DNA and RNA in bacteria, to which there is no resistance. Once Deal realized he had a product that worked — most importantly, a machine that killed all the mildew in his brother’s bathroom (“If you knew the hygiene habits of my younger brother, you’d understand why we were so excited,” Deal says) — he called in the experts.
Dunn grew up in the UV world. Through his family business, Lumalier Corp., Dunn spent much of his 20s improving indoor air quality with UV technology to prevent the contraction of tuberculosis by HIV/AIDS patients with weakened immune systems. When Dunn was contacted by Deal to see if he was interested in commercializing his invention, Dunn immediately took action. “I bought exclusive patent rights to the innovation and technology,” Dunn says.
That was in 2006, and since then Dunn has worked tirelessly to recruit researchers and leaders in the industry to conduct studies using the Tru-D SmartUVC technology and become the leader in the UV sterilization of hospitals.
“I proceeded to find independent thought leaders and experts in the sterilization and disinfection environment, and researchers from different parts of the country, in hospitals and universities, so that we could step away from the research and have no input on how they were testing,” Dunn says.
The first round of studies concluded that their claims were accurate and that the technology could consistently disinfect an operating room or patient rooms in the intensive care unit. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and the Prevention Epicenter Program at Duke University, and the University of North Carolina conducted a $2 million infection reduction study called “Benefits of Enhanced Terminal Room Disinfection,” which was a double-blind data pool that included 25,000-room disinfection cycles, 100,000 patient days, and nine hospitals of varying sizes.
The study concluded in the summer of 2014, with the collating of the data concluding this past spring. The results will be unveiled at the Infectious Disease Week in San Diego this October.
“This means a huge number of hospitals will have the data they need to make the decision to deploy technology that improves hospital infections,” Dunn says.
Dunn says his product has come about at a very important time in healthcare. “UV was used a lot in the 1930s and ‘40s, in schools and hospitals. Then penicillin came along as an effective antibiotic and the idea of disinfectants fell off,” Dunn says. “What we’ve seen in the past 10 or 15 years is that infections have become drug-resistant. Antibiotics don’t always work anymore. We’re back to the elimination of the passage of pathogens.”
The Tru-D SmartUVC “robots” emit an automated, measured dose of UV lights from a solitary position in the room, ensure 99.99 percent pathogen reduction in a single cycle, and eliminate the threat of human error.
UV-C light is not dangerous to humans, and the low-pressure mercury vapor lamps are endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy for use in health-care environments.
Dunn’s product could not have come about any sooner in light of the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
His company sent two devices to Liberia to disinfect rooms where patients had displayed symptoms, had not yet been diagnosed, and were being moved to other rooms.
“We were able to improve the conditions of these hospitals,” Dunn says, adding, “This has been a valuable entrepreneurial learning experience. Improvements in the field of healthcare require much more than a marketing campaign. You have to demonstrate your claims are factual, and you have to do this through third-party independent research. You have to be patient. And there are challenges, because once an innovation is proven to work in the healthcare community, competition without third-party data enters the space.”
When Dunn is not busy traveling the world to save it, he spends the majority of his time watching his two sons either play music or sports. He says the Innovation Awards serve as a reminder of all the hard work he’s done. “You get so absorbed in your passion that you forget all of the accomplishments that have occurred over the years to get you where you are today. Being recognized forces you to look back in time and see and appreciate your accomplishments.”
The Eureka Factor
Well before it became a vacuum cleaner company's brand name, and even before the word made its way onto The Great Seal of the State of California, the word "eureka" was simply Greek for "I found it!" Legend has it that, over 2,000 years ago, the mathematician Archimedes solved one of the ancient world's greatest scientific problems while sitting in his large wooden bathtub. "Eureka!" he cried excitedly after he'd figured out the puzzle – he'd discovered that a precise volume of water would be displaced by a solid of equal volume. In this case, the solid was Archimedes himself. he was so excited that he purportedly jumped out of the tub and into the street, naked, shouting at everyone he encountered, "I found it!"
We're not quite that excited down here at the offices of Inside Memphis Business – we're keeping our clothes on – but we are very pleased this month to announce the recipients of our Third Annual Innovation Awards, presented in conjunction with the Fogelman College of Business & Economics at the University of Memphis.
Once again, the competition was stiff; it's remarkable what wonderfully innovative projects are going on inside the research centers of our private and public institutions, and inside the homes and garages of individual Memphians. After reading the next few pages, I think you'll agree with me that all four of this year's winners are truly worthy honorees.
Keep in mind what these awards are all about. Much as we all value business acumen and financial success, this celebration is not about entrepreneurship or profitability. The Innovation Awards salute vision and endurance, and most of all, they celebrate real breakthroughs. There's nothing inevitable about what our winners have done. These are real people solving real problems.
Special thanks again to Dr. Rajiv Grover, Dean of the Fogelman College, and to our now well-experienced panel of judges, who graciously adjudicated these awards for a third straight year and, clearly, took their mission very seriously. The results speak for themselves. Thank you all for your excellent efforts.
- Kenneth Neill, Publisher
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