4th Annual Wyss Retreat: The Adventure Continues
The 4th annual "Wyss Retreat" held in Boston yesterday was not your typical academic meeting -- but then again, the Wyss Institute isn't a typical academic research institute.
"In just a few years, we've grown from nothing to something quite substantial, as you can see here today," remarked Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Wyss, to a bustling crowd that filled the largest meeting room at the InterContinental Hotel. Since its inaugural year in 2009, the Institute -- whose "high risk" research portfolio is aimed at transforming medicine and creating a sustainable environment -- has grown to include more than 350 full-time staff, and the retreat audience has more than tripled from 140 to 460. The Wyss community as a whole is a dynamic mix of faculty, fellows, students, research and engineering staff, clinicians and industrial collaborators.
Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss, introduced the annual retreat by discussing the importance of finding a way to keep the "balls in the air without letting any drop" now that the Institute has grown so large, and has such a diverse portfolio of projects in its pipeline.
The meeting included a cornucopia of compelling updates on the Institute's projects -- from flying Robo-bees that could help in search and rescue missions, to a new way to assist children with cerebral palsy develop their muscles by "catching" butterflies on a Wyss-designed touchscreen computer, to human "organs-on-chips" that are designed to replace animal drug testing, to "out of the box" ways to sequence all of the products of the genome simultaneously within intact cells.
Wyss Entrepreneur-in-residence James Coon describes his business strategy for the translation effort behind the clot-busting nanotherapeutic technology.
But this year's meeting also focused heavily on translation. Translation is about how to take the projects out of the lab, and into the real world, and it is a core focus of the Wyss Institute.
This goal of spanning from advanced research to the commercialization of bioinspired materials and devices is what proudly makes the Institute unique: When you head into the Wyss, or participate in the retreat, you see entrepreneurs and business development experts working side-by-side with scientists and engineers in the lab, as well as with clinicians and industry leaders who know the market challenges first-hand. These interactions span innumerable fields; walls between disciplines simply don't exist at the Institute.
George Whitesides, Wyss faculty member and professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, dines with Wyss Visiting Scholar Pat Sapinsley, who is the President of Build Efficiently, LLC, a company that focuses on deployment of energy efficient technologies for architectural applications.
"This year is going to be an exciting one because we're very close to taking many of these technologies out the door," said Ingber when referring to the 'Institute Projects' presentations that represent the Institute's most advanced technologies. "And today you're going to understand that each of our projects requires a different approach when it comes to commercialization -- and each involves just as much passion and creativity as we [scientists] experience in the laboratory."
Among the Institute’s more developed projects are a "smart" nanotherapeutic that selectively targets clot-busting drugs to vascular occlusion sites; a surface coating technology called SLIPS that repels just about anything, from preventing sticking of ice to airplane wings to stopping bacteria from growing on kitchen counters; and a pathogen capture technology that has been adapted for multiple applications, including devices for rapid diagnosis and treatment of patients with sepsis through efficient blood cleansing.
The annual Wyss retreat was not your typical academic meeting. "OK Go" band member Damian Kulash reminded the crowd of the power and importance of "play" in generating some of the world's most transformative ideas, and then entertained them with a song.
The list of honors and awards achieved over the past year by the Wyss faculty, students, fellows and staff, as well as the Institute itself, was so long that it was an impossible slide to read from the audience. But this seemed just fine to philanthropist and visionary Hansjorg Wyss, whose generous gift made the Wyss Institute possible. "This has been for me a terrific day," said Mr. Wyss. "You are all proving that the things most people think can't be achieved, can be done. ...Keep going," he said.
True to form, the Institute took a risk on adding a new element to this year's meeting as well: inviting the packed house of more than 450 attendees to participate in a group brainstorming session focused on identifying "Grand Challenges of the 21st Century." The bold suggestions tossed out ranged from designing "photosynthetic humans" to "wearable tissue regeneration machines."
Other exciting projects presented at the retreat included:
- A dynamic, light-redirecting system to enhance the energy efficiency and comfort of buildings
- Membrane-enclosed DNA nanostructures that mimic viruses for drug delivery
- A vibrating baby mattress that helps prevent infant apnea
- A material called "Shrilk" inspired by insect cuticle that can be used as a biodegradable plastic for both commercial products and medical applications
- A human gut-on-a-chip microdevice that recapitulates the intestinal structure and allows a living microbiome to inhabit it, and
- Robotic bees and jellyfish that actually fly and swim like their living creatures.
"Our model is working," said Ingber is his closing remarks. "We have to remain flexible, always experiment, and we need to come to some kind of dynamic equilibrium such that we're send those projects that are ready out into the world, while bringing new ideas into the fold."