VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine aims to accelerate Richmond’s efforts to become a premier biotech hub

Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D. and L. Franklin Bost, Ph.D.
Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D. and L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Engineering and Medicine (IEM) is working to put Richmond, Virginia, on the map of cities known for biotech excellence.

That’s the vision expressed by Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Chair and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, as he becomes co-director along with L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A., associate dean for innovation and outreach for VCU College of Engineering. Donahue is focusing on center-to-center faculty research collaboration and Bost on product innovation and development. The common goal: transform Richmond into a premier hub for biomedical research, innovation, development and education.

“Having Donahue and Bost as co-directors of the IEM is a perfect blend of research and development focused on generating novel medical products based on sound scientific evidence,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of VCU Engineering.

“The Institute for Engineering and Medicine demonstrates VCU’s commitment to innovative and transformative learning, exceptional patient care, community engagement and impactful research. Our reputation for discovery and collaboration in academia and with industry is bringing bold and ambitious new opportunities for our faculty and students to pursue multidisciplinary research and the IEM is playing an important role in facilitating this effort," said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., Vice President for Research and Innovation.

In 2012, a 25,000-square-foot IEM research building opened next to Engineering’s West Hall on the Monroe Park Campus. It now houses the Laboratory for Musculoskeletal Research and Innovation, Biomedical Engineering, Science and Technology Lab, the VCU Nanomaterials Core Characterization facility and other research and faculty spaces.

The scope of the institute goes well beyond its physical footprint. As director since 2015, Bost has focused the institute’s efforts on bridging entities on the Monroe Park and MCV campuses to increase collaborations and potential for commercialization of new medical products. To that end, IEM and engineering came together in a consortium of business, engineering, arts and medicine faculty and students that ultimately laid the groundwork for the new VCU Health Innovation Consortium.

VCU Engineering and clinical faculty have long collaborated on research. Bost broadened these efforts, with more than a dozen different departments at VCU Health now working with VCU Engineering. Products and needs in health care span multiple engineering disciplines, including mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, materials engineering as well as biomedical engineering.

Multiple clinical faculty and allied health professionals engage engineering student teams for senior engineering Capstone Design projects. For projects requiring a longer-term focus, the Vertically Integrated Projects program provides larger teams of multi-disciplinary, multi-year students. IEM sponsors symposiums between engineering and clinical faculty and founded annual HealthHacks 24-hour student “design-a-thon.” The institute has been the VCU home for the Atlantic Pediatric Device Consortium, funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Citing VCU’s motto of “Make it real,” Bost said, “The way you make it real for students is to provide projects with real-world needs and challenges to address.”

Nicki Damico, Ph.D., an assistant professor and vice chair for academic affairs at the VCU Department of Nurse Anesthesia in the College of Health Professions, said collaborating with the College of Engineering has provided valuable experiences for students in both disciplines to learn from each other. Engineering students can experience what it’s like to be in an operating room, she said. Nurse anesthesia students can test and evaluate prototypes of medical devices created by engineering students.

What’s more, Damico said, by identifying problems that engineering students can attempt to solve, “we can get involved and we can play a role in making system changes.”

In this next phase for IEM, Donahue said the institute would seek to extended working partnerships with other university entities including the VCU Massey Cancer Center, the Center for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering (CERSE), the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center and the Weil Institute for Emergency Medicine and Research. In addition to facilities on the Monroe Park campus, multiple VCU Engineering faculty direct labs located in BioTech One and BioTech Eight in the VA Bio+Tech Park near the MCV campus. From recent discussions with these centers and common interests in new research collaborations, IEM is planning a multidisciplinary workshop on medical imaging, bioinformatics and machine learning in 2020.

Touting the university’s academic and health sciences campuses along with Richmond’s appeal among young, highly-educated professionals, Donahue said, “What makes VCU uniquely well positioned is our outstanding medical center, wonderful place to live and proximity to a world-class Veterans Affairs medical center. We want to foster further collaborations across the campus and take a convergent approach to science, engineering, medicine and the arts.”