Prof. Donald Ingber – Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University


Academic studies in engineering and different scientific fields are the source of many technologies that changed the world as we know it – computers, information technologies, communications, biotechnology, medical devices. However, many obstacles separate academia and industry and slow the progress of technological innovation and its translation to products. The problem is not a new one – academic entities are wonderfully creative and a source of technological innovation but also tend to focus on scientific publications and teaching. In contrast, it is usually exceedingly difficult to develop innovation in large companies and organizations, much like the attempt to divert a large ship from its course. Since its foundation 11 years ago, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has developed a new model for applied technological innovation. This model uniquely combines academic and industrial approaches to translate scientific research into commercial products. As a result, the Institute has succeeded in overcoming the obstacles that exist in academia and connect it to the industry.

In the past, industry registered many successes by applying basic engineering principles to solving problems in other areas. The Wyss institute was founded in 2009 based on the acknowledgement that we are now in the “biological era”. The Institute’s approach is that we possess extensive knowledge about the way in which nature builds, controls and creates, so that we can leverage these biological principles and develop engineering innovations. This principle, called “biologically inspired engineering”, is the one by which the institute operates every day.

The Institute’s mission is to discover the foundations of biological processes which nature uses to construct living systems and to harness these insights to develop engineering innovations inspired by biology. These innovations will, in just a short period of time, have a dramatic influence on healthcare and on the quality of life for each and every one of us. However, in light of the insight that applied developments cannot be achieved quickly solely by founding a superb research institute, we also decided to develop a new organizational model that would ensure that the revolutionary discoveries would be exported from the lab and help bring about truly global changes.

In order to contend with this challenge, the Wyss Institute developed a new model that combines applied multidisciplinary research and innovation while deviating from traditional academic consensus by creating cross-organizational collaborations and studies. This new model included: the creation of a new organizational entity beyond the existing research institutions at Harvard University; development of a broader organization that includes academic institutes and hospitals connected to the Boston-Cambridge area ecosystem; recruitment of world-leading lecturers and researchers with entrepreneurial qualities to serve as central members of the organization; allocation of areas for collaborations between research groups in focused applied technology fields (as opposed to reliance on individual faculty members); recruitment of more than 40 scientists and engineers with industrial experience in research and development; recruitment of expert intellectual property lawyers and a business development team that includes institute entrepreneurs to lead advanced projects teams; and promotion of these commercial efforts via collaborations with clinical researchers, hospitals, corporations, venture capital funds and by founding new startup companies.

This unique approach to technological innovation and its application within academia generated more than 2800 requests for patent registrations, more than 30 new startup companies, and almost 60 licensing agreements.


Some of our breakthroughs are detailed below:

  • Engineering development of a personalized trouser suit adapted for individual muscle and skeleton structure, intended for use by stroke patients with the aim of accelerating their rehabilitation and enabling them to walk properly. The first FDA authorization for sale of this technology was awarded to ReWalk Inc.

  • Development of vaccination against cancer that is in initial stages of human clinical trials. This development led to the signing of a manufacturing agreement with the pharmaceutical corporation Novartis.

  • Development of an “organ-on-a-chip” technology that is based on an advanced microfluid capable of replacing animal trials in the development of personalized drug therapy and healthcare. This is technology now being sold globally by Emulate Inc.

  • Engineering development of a diagnostic system for hospitals that is based on a fluorescent genetic mapping system used within tissue in real-time. This development allows pathologists to identify abnormal expressions of proteins is histological samples. The system is marketed by the ReadCoor corporation.

  • A device for treating septicemia that cleans the blood of infected patients, and that is marketed by Boa Biomedical Inc.

  • CRISPR-based diagnostic systems currently being developed by Sherlock Biosciences.

    Thanks to our model, we are continuing to create a continuous series of mature, or almost mature, innovative technologies for industrial collaborations and to transform them into products that meet market needs. The success of our application model is attracting international attention, and research institutes and many countries around the world are now seeking to develop similar models for collaborations. Many point to our unique location in the Boston-Cambridge area and to the renowned scientists and engineers who we have succeeded in recruiting, aspects which may prove difficult to replicate in other places. Despite these unique characteristics, I believe that pioneering innovation exists everywhere and that it is possible to replicate certain organizational elements of our model to achieve greater success in traversing academic-industrial boundaries.

    Time will tell.