By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
August was a really big month for Ben Curry.
The former Cookeville resident who now calls Knoxville home earned his PhD in Nutritional Science from the University of Tennessee (UT), got engaged, and launched a new division for Ension, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based medical device company.
Though it sounds like a whirlwind for the newly minted doctor, starting Ension’s testing division was actually a continuation of work that he was doing for the company while working on his PhD at UT.
Curry’s journey from a senior majoring in microbiology at UT to an entrepreneur starting a new laboratory is another example of how a single event can change an individual’s plans.
In his case, Curry said one of the options for his last semester before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2008 was to do research. He elected that opportunity and got linked with John Biggerstaff, then a member of the UT faculty.
Curry’s work with Biggerstaff his last semester and into the summer hooked him on a field called biocompatibility testing. So, when Fall Semester started, Curry began work on a Master’s Degree in Biochemistry, but continued working on the side with Biggerstaff.
“We did various tests to see how medical devices performed,” Curry explained. One of the clients was Ension.
In 2010, Curry changed majors, moving to Nutritional Science where he linked-up with Michael Zemel.
The two faculty members – one (Zemel) his major professor and the other (Biggerstaff) whom he supported him as a Research Assistant – clearly impacted Curry’s educational and career paths.
So, too, did Fred Tompkins who has taught several entrepreneurial courses each semester for primarily graduate students.
“It set-off fireworks for what I wanted to do,” Curry said in relation to starting a business.
Today, instead of working as a graduate student for Ension, a company that he described as a medical device incubator, Curry is setting-up its testing division in the Fairview Technology Center in Solway. And, in one of those ironies of life, his lab is next door to the lab of NuSirt Biopharma, the company founded by Zemel.
For Curry, the Ension opportunity is almost too good to believe.
“I offered to go wherever Ension wanted me to go,” Curry said when offered a full-time job with the company. The options were its headquarters in Pittsburgh, where the engineering staff is based, a new office in Irvine, CA, or Florida, where the surface chemists are located.
“The President wanted me here,” Curry said, explaining that the idea is to spinout the lab in the next three to five years after it becomes self-sustaining, working not only for Ension but other companies requiring its testing services.
Such an idea might sound strange to many, but it is actually a central premise of Ension’s business model.
“They come-up with an idea, put it on paper, develop a prototype, and if the technology demonstrates technical and commercial feasibility, either spinoff the technology into a new company to conduct commercialization activities or pursue licensing,” Curry says. Thus far, two companies have been spun-off through the business model.
Ension was founded in 2001 to pursue design and development of medical technologies addressing unmet patient needs. Over the ensuing 13 years, the Company has expanded its capabilities to include biocompatible surface design and biomaterial modification and testing as well as regenerative product development.
“Hemocompatibility is what we will do here,” Curry said. “We will test how the blood reacts to any artificial surface.”
In addition to Ension, clients will include medical device companies that need to understand how blood reacts to the materials that they are using in a new device such as a new ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) system that, in essence, operates as the heart and lungs for a patient waiting for a transplant of one or both organs.
“We want to help create safer medical devices for better outcomes in patients,” Curry says, adding that the interaction of blood with surface materials is a critical factor in the development of new devices.
“Every material is different and blood responds differently,” he explains.
Curry is a one-person team in Knoxville. He’s spending a good deal of time getting the new facility running and working on a project involving development of an infectious resistant surface.
“I love the testing more than anything,” he says of the opportunity to build a new lab and launch a new division of a company. August was a good month, and the future is bright for Curry.