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Duke ECE Welcomes First Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Vamsee Pamula PhD’01 has a new company–and a new gig as Duke ECE’s first Entrepreneur-in-Residence.

There’s no shortage of resources for Duke’s entrepreneurial engineers. Within the Pratt School of Engineering, the dedicated Entrepreneurship @ Duke Engineering program offers workshops and seminars designed to instill entrepreneurial confidence. There’s a brand new “Founders Track” in the Master of Engineering Management program. And Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative further connects engineers to assets like expert advice on pitching to investors, seeking patents, and protecting intellectual property.

Now, the ECE community has added its first Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Vamsee Pamula ECE PhD ‘01, whose personal goal is to help students and faculty recognize ideas that can be translated to products for societal impact, and to steer clear of some of the roadblocks that slowed down his first startup.

“The first thing I would tell researchers interested in starting their own company is, ‘Do some market research. See what need exists in the marketplace, then quickly decide on a beachhead opportunity—an initial foothold that opens the way for further development—where your technology uniquely fits.’” This was a lesson that he learned the hard way, admitted Pamula. He co-founded his first company, Advanced Liquid Logic, as a postdoctoral researcher in ECE Professor Richard Fair’s microfluidics lab. But he started with the solution–digital microfluidics technology—and a general idea of the problem space then went searching for a specific need; had he identified a beachhead opportunity sooner, he said, and adapted the technology to solve it, everything from ideation to exit might have gone more smoothly and quickly.

Nevertheless, working alongside Fair, fellow postdoc Michael Pollack PhD ’01, and Richard West BSE ’79, Pamula managed to grow the fledgling lab-on-a-chip company to a 90-employee enterprise over the next nine years, before selling it to genomics giant Illumina in 2013 for nearly $100 million. Pamula and West launched a second company, Baebies, the very same day.  This time, they applied what they learned on the first go-round, and started by identifying a problem: the fact that newborn babies are not generally screened for rare diseases like Pompe disease, an enzyme deficiency that affects one in 40,000 newborns and usually results in mortality before the child’s first birthday. Baebies capitalizes upon digital microfluidics and other technologies to deliver rapid testing for newborns—testing for several rare diseases using a single drop of blood, and allowing doctors to quickly begin interventions. In the case of Pompe disease, that means enzyme replacement therapy to slow the disease’s progression.

The extra “e” in Baebies, said Pamula, is for “everyone,” signifying that every baby deserves a healthy start. The spelling is a constant reminder of their mission, and who they chose to serve.

“Duke ECE has a well-deserved reputation for entrepreneurial excellence,” said Department Chair Krishnendu Chakrabarty. “There is high demand for the products and solutions developed by electrical and computer engineers, and Duke’s entrepreneurial ecosystem allows businesses that started here to grow and thrive. It’s wonderful that the ECE community will have the additional benefit of Vamsee Pamula’s significant real-world experience and success and his ethos of service.”

Pamula will spend about a day every month with ECE students and faculty who are interested in starting their own businesses. He can offer advice in areas including idea development, securing intellectual property, and commercialization of research, and said he is particularly looking forward to hearing a wide range of impactful ideas from ECE students.

Those interested in meeting with Pamula should contact Dina Khalilova for an appointment.


[Originally posted by Duke  Pratt School of Engineering — March 11, 2019]

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