PART 2: Barnett says seeing a need leads to an opportunity

Charlie Barnett(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a two-part series spotlighting long-time Knoxville Physician and Entrepreneur Charlie Barnett.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“You see a need, and there ought to be an opportunity to address it,” Knoxville Physician Charlie Barnett told us in our recent interview.

That belief has guided him through a series of entrepreneurial activities including the two cited in the first article in this series – an Electronic Medical Record he developed for his own practice in 1985 and a more recent exploration that uses USBs to let patients have possession of their health records.

One of Barnett’s earliest start-ups was a pre-fab construction business he launched in the early 1980s. During the short-lived endeavor, he says the company built three different homes and sold them,

“It’s another example of where I was ahead of my time,” he says of the idea.

Barnett and Pete DeBusk, the well-known Founder of DeRoyal, the local healthcare products company, pursued a technology licensed from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the mid-1990s. It involved neutron capture to make Moly-99 and ultimately Technetium-99m that is used in about two-thirds of all diagnostic medical isotope procedures in the U.S. Ultimately, U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval became too great a hill to climb.

The work with ORNL, however, produced another licensing opportunity that Barnett and two other local entrepreneurs – Vig Sherrill and Bill Malkes – pursued with the founding of Healthspex in 1999. Commonly known as the “lab on a chip,” the technology was developed by Tuan Vo-Dinh, an ORNL Researcher who left in 2006 to join the faculty at Duke University.

Sherrill and Malkes subsequently left the start-up to found Aldis, now known as GRIDSMART. Barnett remained with Healthspex, later renamed it as Nano Detection, and relocated the start-up to Ohio.

In the early part of the new millennium, Barnett pursued a test to diagnose cystic fibrosis. “There wasn’t a market,” he determined. “People did not want to know.” Again, he was a few years ahead of his time.

More recent healthcare explorations have included a bacterial covering for IV catheters, a partnership with Tommy Thomas of 3rd Dimension Technologies to assess novel uses of holograms, and the potential for using nasal sprays in drug delivery.

Then, there is Barnett’s work with Terry Douglass, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officer of Provision Healthcare LLC and leader of several of its affiliated organizations including the Provision Foundation. In his spare time, Barnett serves as Medical Director of the Foundation’s Haiti Serve initiative, where he has been leading an effort to develop a low cost X-Ray machine.

“All of their health facilities were damaged or destroyed in the 2010 earthquake,” he explained. After leading a team of doctors and nurses on a medical mission to the ravaged nation five days after the quake, Barnett applied his inquisitive mind and healthcare knowledge to developing a less expensive technology that could be deployed to countries like Haiti.

With the help of Fred Tompkins, then an administrator at the University of Tennessee, and a team of students, a prototype of the new X-Ray machine was installed last year. Barnett is now focused on finding the resources to build at least 10 machines, which cost a mere $30,000 each, to deploy to Third World countries.

As he reviewed his entrepreneurial pursuits with us, Barnett offered a couple of thoughts for others to consider.

“You have to judge people,” he says. “Some have an innate ability to do so. I had to learn the hard way. You also have to work hard, but there’s a lot of luck involved.”

Like so many others have said, Barnett cited the challenge of raising capital locally and the risk averse nature of East Tennessee. Yet, in his characteristic fashion, the Physician/Entrepreneur captured his thoughts with this insightful observation: “The journey is fun whether or not you get to the destination.”

That’s advice well-worth taking to heart.

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