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Becoming shatterproof

March 15, 2021

What it will take to build an antifragile economy in Arizona

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Sunny. Sprawling. Rugged. Many words come to mind to describe the Phoenix metropolitan area. “Fragile” often isn’t one of them. 

But a decade ago, the Valley was the poster child for an easily upended economy. Between 2000 and 2007, the area’s economy boomed. Housing prices doubled. Unemployment dropped to 3.1%. Then the real estate bubble burst, seriously damaging the state’s economy. 

“The Great Recession showed us that the gravy train that existed then was an unhealthy, unsustainable growth model,” said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.  

ASU has been at the forefront of creating a very different model for the Valley — one that isn’t just resilient in the face of change, but “antifragile.” 

According to economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the opposite of fragile is something that thrives in response to shocks and disorder. Examples include parts of Colorado and Washington state where amid the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, some communities continue to flourish. 

An antifragile economy doesn’t just benefit people at the top. The focus on all levels of the economy can mean more educational opportunities, higher wages and more stability for everyone. 

“We bring together a variety of different companies and other kinds of entities to work with each other. It’s not random — the intention is to create a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

— Neal Woodbury, chief science and technology officer at ASU

But what does it take to create an antifragile economy? 

For starters, an educational system that serves people of all backgrounds and ages, from preschool through continuing education. A workforce that, as a result, is technically skilled, adaptable and creative — not to mention homegrown. An antifragile economy can’t rely on importing brainpower while locals settle for lower-wage jobs. 

Diversity is key — in all forms, from ideas to the student population to industries.

“It’s not antifragile if you have a small number of people with the wealth and power and a large number of people with very little,” said Neal Woodbury, chief science and technology officer at ASU. “There has to be a mechanism by which a diversity of thought can come to the forefront. Otherwise, you don’t have that breadth of capability to rise to the occasion.”

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Eric Yuan, Zoom’s CEO, credited a “well-educated, skilled and diverse talent pool” and ASU’s engineering program when the company announced last year that it would open an R&D center in Phoenix. 

But an antifragile economy doesn’t depend on attracting existing companies — it generates its own, giving birth to entirely new fields by providing antifragile skills. 

One example is the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering’s new master’s degree in modern energy production and sustainable use developed to help students from other fields get skilled in engineering-related industries. 

That’s what brought graduate student Martin Flores to the program.

“I look forward to a well-rounded experience that will allow me to choose from among many different directions,” Flores said. 

This is all part of the approach that ASU is taking: championing entrepreneurship and risk-taking, as well as educational inclusion, to reinvent the Valley’s economy, on multiple fronts. 

Inclusive education

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how different life can be for people with — and without — college degrees.

Last April, as restaurants, stores and other businesses shrank or shuttered, the U.S. unemployment rate shot up to 14.7%. But people who didn’t graduate from college were more than twice as likely to lose their jobs than workers with a college degree. By September, when businesses were rehiring, just 4% of college-educated people were still jobless, compared with 8% of high school-educated workers. 

Lack of education doesn’t just impact individuals and families, but entire communities. Companies gravitate to places with plenty of skilled workers; those jobs help create other jobs. More knowledge means more potential for startups. 

“As you produce people, you produce ideas, which turn into companies,” Camacho said. “Those turn into job catalysts, which turn into revenue for our state and our county.”  

Arizona lags behind — 20% of high school freshmen in the state finish college, compared with 40% across the U.S. Unlike the many colleges that take pride in their exclusivity, part of ASU’s mission is to make higher education accessible.  

On the K–12 front, the university has partnered with local school districts to ensure that kids are ready for the challenges of college and to boost college-going rates. Examples are an outreach program to encourage first-generation students to attend college and a program that helps foster kids succeed at the university. Community college partnerships let students attending two-year schools easily transfer to ASU and take classes in their home community. 

ASU’s efforts aren’t just about volume, but diversity. The Hispanic community is the fastest-growing in Arizona, yet lags behind in college attendance. 

“That’s probably the most economic potential to be unlocked,” Camacho said. 

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Overall, Hispanic enrollment at ASU has doubled over the past 12 years, and diversity has increased dramatically at the Fulton Schools. A centerpiece of the university, the engineering program has expanded from about 8,000 to 25,000 students in the last decade. 

Kyle Squires, dean of the engineering schools, says that the percentage of Hispanic students is higher than national averages. That’s not enough: “We want to become the go-to destination for Hispanic students,” he said. “Their premier choice.” 

ASU also has been a leader in serving nontraditional students who can be left out of higher education. In engineering, more than 30 online programs, including undergraduate and graduate degrees, are available. 

A culture of entrepreneurship

Mariana Bertoni, an expert in multiple engineering fields and an associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, credits a monthlong training program at ASU for helping her develop her ideas into a viable business. That program, the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Site, is an entrepreneurship boot camp for researchers. It’s just one of many ASU initiatives designed to ensure that smart ideas don’t die on whiteboards or inside labs. 

Bertoni’s company, Crystal Sonic, uses sound waves to cut the expensive crystal wafers that microchips are built on, preventing waste and saving money. With assistance from a $200,000 fellowship from the Fulton Schools and participation in Venture Devils, she has raised $2 million in seed capital to pay for dedicated space and hire staff. 

The J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute, which administers the NSF I-Corps, has created many programs like Venture Devils and provides fellowships, workshops, mentorships, a makerspace and venture capital. It supports more than 700 entrepreneur teams and has raised more than $34.4 million in external funding for ASU’s entrepreneurial programs. 

Fostering a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture is as crucial to establishing an antifragile economy as running a robust engineering program and educating future technologists, Squires said. 

“We want to drive that with talent, and ideas that translate from the lab out into the community,” Squires said. “Tech companies are probably the core of future economic expansion, company formation and supporting the nontech sector in some cases.”  

Early support from ASU can lay the foundation for outside grants and investments. Swift Coat, which specializes in spraying nanoparticle coatings onto surfaces to protect them from dirt, sun and other hazards, was born out of the Fulton Schools. Since then it has raised $180,000 in business plan competitions and $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, among other funds. 

Entrepreneurship is such a cornerstone of an antifragile economy that ASU continually reinforces it, including with a new Master of Science in innovation and venture development degree, a transdisciplinary partnership among the Fulton Schools, the W. P. Carey School of Business and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The program is led by Cheryl Heller, a business strategist and design world icon. 

Serial entrepreneur and industrial designer Travis Andren (’10 BS in industrial design) has come back to Arizona for the program to learn “what I don’t know” to help him build better businesses. 

“My experience and time in industry was fruitful, but I wanted to do things that had a more positive impact,” Andren said.

Grant McFadden

OncoMyx Therapeutics is developing oncolytic immunotherapies to treat cancer, based on the work of Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, and a professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU. McFadden’s team has designed an oncolytic virus to specifically kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Innovating with industry 

Cities around the country have been trying to breathe new life into their economies by better utilizing local universities, observes Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a center-right advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The strategy gets mixed grades, Holtz-Eakin says, in part because typically universities don’t listen well, especially to the business community. 

But at ASU, collaborating with outside stakeholders — big companies, startups, small businesses, Native American tribes, schools and nonprofits — is part of the ethos. These partnerships are vital not only to building an antifragile economy, but to fulfilling ASU’s educational mission. 

“We want our industry partners engaged with our students before they even start their first year of engineering school,” Squires said. “We refer to it as the ’Fulton difference.’”  

The university has developed or is working on seven innovation corridors, facilities that bring together students, faculty, startups, established companies and support infrastructure. The Arizona Health Solutions Corridor expands on the university’s partnership with Mayo Clinic. ASU Research Park focuses on wearable technology, flexible displays and other cutting-edge technologies. The others also provide interdisciplinary resources to accelerate innovation in other industries.

Stanislau Herasimenka, an assistant research professor in electrical engineering, launched his startup out of the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Engineering Research Center. He and his partner in Regher Solar are developing solar cells for satellites — the super-thin cells are cheaper to make than traditional cells, and more resistant to space’s radiation damage. He was able to leverage an ecosystem of resources at QESST. Herasimenka and three ASU faculty members recently received a $1.8 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a facility that will let academics work with industry partners to test solar ideas. 

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ASU startup Regher Solar’s flexible solar cells for satellites are cheaper and faster to make than traditional cells (shown here) and more resistant to damage in space. Launched by Stanislau Herasimenka, a researcher in electrical engineering, the company received $0.5 million of SBIR funding from NASA, DOD and NSF to develop affordable and scalable solar technology for space.

Skysong Innovations helps bring technologies developed at ASU to market, supporting tech transfer, licensing, startup launch and major investments.

SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, has generated more than $130 million in state tax revenues and launched 160-plus startups, said Woodbury. It is expected to provide an economic impact to Arizona of nearly $58.2 billion over the next 30 years.

“We bring together a variety of different companies and other kinds of entities to work with each other,” Woodbury said. “It’s not random — the intention is to create a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

One recent success is OncoMyx Therapeutics, which creates virus-based cancer treatments. The company raised $25 million in 2019 and spun off from ASU last year. 

Partnering with industry is a win-win for everyone, including mature companies, which benefit from a direct pipeline to research and to coveted engineering graduates. 

“From a company perspective, it’s competitive,” Squires said. Engineering undergraduates are often hired before they’ve started their senior year. 

Preparing for the future

Amid the good news, challenges remain. Arizona’s economy remains stubbornly fragile, with too much income disparity and declining GDP. The state has recovered only two-thirds of pandemic job losses. 

The coming years will be crucial, says the Greater Phoenix Economic Council's Camacho. 

The Valley needs to take advantage of the current situation to drive investment and policy decisions, so the economy emerges more dynamic and competitive, or it will be left behind, he said.

“The next decade sets the trajectory for the next 50 years.” 

Learn more about ASU’s impact on the Arizona economy at impactarizona.asu.edu.

Story by Sara Clemence. A reporter and writer, Sara Clemence is a former travel editor for The Wall Street Journal, news director for Travel + Leisure, deputy business editor for the New York Post, and lifestyle editor for Condé Nast Portfolio and Forbes.com. She is also author of “Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel.” 

Top photo: Mariana Bertoni leads the lab DEfECT (Defect Engineering for Energy Conversion Technologies) focusing on how defects can affect electrical and optical properties of material. She also is chief technical officer at Crystal Sonic, an ASU startup that uses a process she invented in which sound waves are used to cut the expensive crystal wafers that microchips are built on, preventing waste and saving money. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

 
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Saving lives through innovation

March 15, 2021

A unique new startup accelerator with Mayo Clinic and ASU is supporting breakthrough innovation in the health care industry

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

The pain of a lingering sore throat is, in many cases, not just physical. On top of feeling unwell, people often have to enter the health care system to get relief. This often looks like: making a request to take time off work, finding an open appointment, sitting in traffic, filling out paperwork, enduring a throat swab and, finally, paying the bill.

Treating common illnesses — strep throat, urinary tract infections, influenza and now COVID-19 — could be more accessible and affordable, giving power to the consumer and reducing wasted spending in health care, argues Ken Mayer, founder of health technology company Safe Health Systems.

Based in Los Angeles, Safe Health Systems is working to disrupt the traditional approach for treating low-complexity illnesses by offering remote diagnostic and digital care services. In 2020, the company formed a venture offering digital provider services, AI-based care and remote and rapid diagnostic testing with Mayo Clinic through the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator.  

In the case of someone suffering from strep throat, the Safe platform would allow that person to find care, take a rapid diagnostic test and receive trusted results, from home. When Safe Health Systems launched in 2016, its scope was narrowly defined, focused exclusively on the rising sexually transmitted disease epidemic. The company created an app, Safely, that allows users to import STD test results and show their verified status privately on their phones.  

Looking to scale the technology, Safe Health Systems turned to the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, an immersive two-week program followed by six to 12 months of continued mentoring, that began in 2019. The program helps early-stage medical device and health care technology companies level up through personalized feedback from clinicians and business leaders. 

Six companies, including Safe Health Systems, were part of the inaugural cohort. As a participant in the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, Mayer was able to spend invaluable time with subject-matter experts, including Dr. Steven Lester, the program’s founder and medical director, and a Mayo Clinic cardiologist. 

VIDEO: See how the accelerator works

Inspiration for the accelerator came to Lester and colleagues at ASU about four years ago, after Lester took on a new role in Mayo Clinic’s department of business development. One of the first people Lester connected with was Charlie Lewis, the accelerator’s co-founder and vice president of venture development and physical sciences at SkySong Innovations, an ASU spinoff that helps bring university inventions to the marketplace. 

The two began discussing ways to make health care technology companies visible to the venture capital community, “to potentially fund some of these things, as well as getting in front of potential entrepreneurs that might be able to take these ideas and run with them in the form of launching a new startup,” Lewis said.

Lester and Lewis brought in other experts from ASU to help build this unique accelerator that combines access to Mayo Clinic’s world-class physicians and ASU’s entrepreneurial resources. The program includes individuals such as Ji Mi Choi, vice president, Knowledge Enterprise and founding executive director, the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute; Michael Harris, senior director of corporate development at Mayo Clinic and accelerator co-managing partner; Rick Hall, senior director of health innovation at ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and accelerator co-managing partner; and Amy Woof, who serves as clinical operations program manager of Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University Alliance for Health Care. 

The unique program will “help these companies to advance in the marketplace,” said Lewis, who is the program’s chief venture development officer. 

The program is designed to help innovators navigate notoriously complex governmental medical regulations, while gaining support from established and sometimes reluctant-to-change health institutions.

Health check app

Safe Health Systems’ digital care and remote diagnostic technology is currently deployed at several universities amid the pandemic, including ASU as the Daily Health Check app.

Touch points with Mayo Clinic and ASU experts

Another startup from the inaugural cohort, Securisyn Medical, used the experience to improve its interlocking breathing tube securement technology.

Securisyn co-founder Dr. Arthur Kanowitz, who spent many years as a medical director for ambulance and fire departments, is dedicated to solving a serious and preventable problem in medicine — tragedies related to unplanned extubations.

Smooth, plastic breathing tubes are typically secured by an adhesive tape that sticks to the patient’s face or a device that grips to the tube. But after encountering heat and moisture in the human body, the tubes can become slippery and unexpectedly slide out of an airway, potentially causing pneumonia, brain damage and even death.

In 2019, approximately 121,000 people experienced unplanned extubations, resulting in 33,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. These are also complications “that lead to over $4 billion a year in unnecessary health care costs to the system,” co-founder, CFO and COO Elyse Blazevich said.

Securisyn was still pre-revenue and pre-FDA clearance when it entered the accelerator with its original design — a series of ribs on the smooth, slippery surface of the breathing tube, allowing it to interlock with the securement device, creating a strong barrier against movement.

While participating in the accelerator, Blazevich estimates the company had more than 100 touch points with emergency room and critical care physicians, respiratory therapists and health care administrators, in addition to experts in supply chain issues and innovation, among others. These are connections that continue today, even as the product has evolved into a bolt-on accessory, where securement can be added to any endotracheal tube, regardless of where it’s placed or which manufacturer made it.

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Participating in the program helped Securisyn evolve from a single invention — a device to better secure breathing tubes — to an expanded portfolio of products in various areas of health care.

This spring, Securisyn will begin clinical builds and is planning to move into full production next year. Broadening the scope of its product brings the company closer to its overarching goal: eliminating unplanned extubation and attaining zero preventable deaths.

Mayo Clinic’s decision to invest in Safe and Securisyn was motivated by its goal of helping companies transition to the next level, while also improving the health care system. Venture capitalists are typically driven by financial returns, Lester said. “When Mayo Clinic is investing, they’re fundamentally motivated by one thing — is this going to favorably impact the care of our patients and patients worldwide?”

Credibility with the industry 

For Gyant, a health care technology company that was also part of the inaugural cohort, the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator was essential in tackling one of the first hurdles as a startup: getting initial buy-in from the health care industry.

“You also participate in a way that gives you access to that first potential customer ... and that creates a level of institution trust that is really important to break into the industry,” said co-founder and CEO Stefan Behrens.

New to health care, Behrens and co-founder Pascal Zuta used their experience in the video game industry to develop an AI-based platform that works as a connective tissue between patients and their health system. The platform and virtual health care assistant appears on a hospital system’s website or app to chat with patients 24/7, guiding them to the proper care.  

It keeps track of health histories and records, creating a personalized experience to perform basic tasks in the early stages of the patient journey.

“It reduces the staff hours needed to do mundane things,” Behrens said. “There’s such a shortage of qualified staff, everyone is burned out and worn thin, so if there’s anything we can do to reduce some of that burden and let a computer handle it, that’s a win for the health system.”

In the first week and a half of the accelerator, the Gyant team met with about 12 Mayo department heads of gastroenterology, radiology, emergency medicine and other disciplines, along with ASU professors in biomedical informatics and engineering. They also spent time with health care workers on the ground, such as nurses and technicians who could provide a different perspective on the product. In a single week, they figured out the type of solutions to pursue that would have normally taken months, Behrens said.

The accelerator was invaluable and forced Gyant to consider “how does (the platform) fit into the patient journey in a major health system and where does it create value for the health system, so that they would be willing to adopt something like this,” Behrens said.

Solving pressing needs

Nearly two years after participating in the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, Safe Health Systems, Securisyn and Gyant are making a significant impact on patient and health care workers’ lives.

Securisyn spent 2020 testing its core breathing tube securement device with several institutions that gave the company validation of the product’s usefulness. 

Gyant team

Because of participation in the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, in a single week the Gyant team was able to figure out what solutions to pursue for success. Photo courtesy of Gyant

Gyant is handling 60,000 patient interactions every day at hospitals. Gyant’s COVID-19 Screener and Emergency Response Assistant, which offers educational content on coronavirus and virtual screenings via chatbots, has been used by 25 payer and health system customers and 500,000 patients.

Safe Health’s digital care and remote diagnostic technology is currently deployed at several universities amid the pandemic, including ASU as the Daily Health Check app, for daily self-assessment and health status verification. Its vaccine care tool will support distribution and verification in the coming months. 

As the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator prepares for its second cohort in the spring, the team looks forward to working with even more companies that have original solutions to health care’s most challenging needs. Addressing these pressing issues is about originality, creativity and thinking of new ways to provide better care to patients, Lester said.

“It’s about finding people that want to continue to move forward and embrace the unknown and uncertain, and have that optimistic belief that there are really always solutions, just as long as one searches for opportunities to achieve them,” Lester said. 

About the Mayo Clinic and ASU Alliance for Health Care

The Mayo Clinic and ASU Alliance for Health Care is the university’s most transformative collaboration. Formalized by a signed memorandum of understanding in 2016, the alliance continues to develop comprehensive improvements in the science of health care delivery and practice, all toward one goal: continually advancing patient care. Together the recognized world leader in patient care, education and research, and the nation’s No. 1 ranked university for innovation are combining expertise from every corner of health care – doctors to bioengineers to business experts – for an adaptive approach to preparing the next generation of health care pioneers and practitioners in our communities.

Story by Makeda Easter. A staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Easter covers the arts. When not writing, she can be found in a dance studio taking a class or in rehearsal for an upcoming show. She previously was a science writer for a supercomputing center at the University of Texas.