Bio-inspirations, Innovation, and Mentoring – A Q&A with Dr. Jeff Karp

On Sunday, November 15, healthcare experts across our Greater Boston community will gather for CJP’s Health Professionals Annual Breakfast. During this reimagined event, attendees will hear from keynote speaker Jeff Karp, B.Eng., Ph.D., co-founder of Gecko Biomedical and Skintifique, and principle investigator at The Karp Lab.

Dr. Jeff Karp is an accomplished innovator in the biomedical field. He’s been recognized by MIT Technology Review Magazine’s “Innovators Under 35” list, and his work has been featured in numerous media outlets including CNN, BBC, Forbes, National Geographic, and the Washington Post.

Learn about Dr. Jeff Karp’s unique work, his experience in Israel, and his advice for young professionals —and sign up for the Health Professionals Annual Breakfast to hear more about Dr. Jeff Karp’s innovation in person. 

How would you describe your company Gecko Biomedical to someone who’s not in the field, and can you give us an example of one of its technologies?

Gecko Biomedical is a company that was founded based on a technology developed in my lab in collaboration with Prof. Bob Langer and Dr. Pedro del Nido among others. They have a unique tissue glue that we had developed that can work within the harshest environment inside the human body, which is inside a beating heart. We developed this so that it could work in the presence of blood. It’s a light-activated system, so that the doctor can actually control when this material hardens. They can attach it potentially to any tissue in the body, including inside a heart, and it’s fully degradable—and then it’s also elastic, so that it can expand and contract with each beat of the heart. It can also encourage the cells in the body to colonize it and form new tissue, so that as it degrades, the patient can be left with the tissue bridge filling a defect or a hole. It’s the patient’s own body that’s actually healed the tissue—so we’re encouraging the body to regenerate, or to heal.

[The technology] will be tested first on humans in December of this year for vascular reconstruction procedures. We’re really excited about that, and discussions with the FDA are being initiated, so we hope to start a trial in the United States in the near future.

Can you talk about bio-inspirations in your technology?

Gecko Biomedical’s tissue glue is inspired by slug, snails, and sandcastle worms. For another tissue adhesion project we have looked at a worm that has a needle-like structure that it inserts into the intestines of fish, and then swells into the tissue making it hard to remove. The worm is a parasite and parasites have all sorts of cool ways to attach to their host for survival.

This worm, and the way it swells, was the inspiration to create a new tissue-adhesive patch. We created an array of little needles we call microneedles, and when you push it in the tissue, the tips swell and then it locks into place. We’re exploring this with Dr. Bo Pomahac at the Brigham for skin grafting procedures and other types of applications—you could use it for drug delivery.

We’ve looked at spider webs, we’ve looked at geckos, we’ve looked at jellyfish, and a lot of other creatures [for inspiration]. Everything that exists around us today that’s living has, through the process of evolution, solved many problems. We are surrounded by solutions. And we’re only limited by two things: our motivation to look at nature to find solutions, and second by the tools that we have available to uncover and understand the mechanisms that are used in nature.

Do you find your inspirations coming more from solutions or from examination and exploration?

We’re conditioned based on our routines to get into a rut and to approach problems the same way every time. There are many tools to break this, and bio-inspiration is one of them, to bring in fresh ideas. Our brains frequently go on autopilot -- we’re conditioned to operate at the lowest energy state possible. And I think that’s counteractive to being innovative and being creative. It puts a kibosh on creativity. With kids it’s the reverse. Kids don’t have as much focus on routines, so they’re super creative.

Turning to nature for inspiration is one way that we can break from that routine, that low-energy state of our brains, and then bring in fresh ideas that you never would’ve thought of otherwise.

Israel is considered one of the top innovation nations. Would you consider going there to do research? 

I’ve been to Israel four times, most recently around three months ago. I visited a good friend of mine. Dan Peer runs the Center for Nanomedicine at Tel Aviv University, and he organized a nanomedicine symposium. Researchers all across Israel came, and several international speakers as well. In addition to a lecture, I met with several exceptional people, true innovators who have founded multiple companies in Israel. I met with Morris Kahn and Aurum Ventures which is his venture capital operation. I also had the opportunity to meet with Yossi Gross, who founded Rainbow Medical. I also met with a number of entrepreneurs and others who run incubators in Israel. I’m very interested to establish collaborations and translate medical research to the patients in Israel.

So what advice do you have for young people looking to get into bio-medical technology, or bio-inspired fields, who are looking to really kick start their careers?

One of the most important things is to align with a good mentor. There are a lot of elements of a good mentor. My favorite definition is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight. And I think someone who sees your potential and actually treats you like you’re already at your potential, so you grow towards that. Everybody has incredible potential, but it’s all about getting into the right environment, where that potential can be realized.

I think in many ways you become a product of your environment. I’ll give you an example: for my Ph.D. I actually had two advisors who were both incredible, one was a great storyteller, and he could get up and discuss very complex things in simple ways, and his writing was clear and concise. In the lab I wasn’t just learning from my specific Ph.D. project, but also by observing how my advisors conduct themselves and take action. I think humans naturally repeat what they observe.  I feel like if you fully submerse yourself, every environment you’re in becomes part of you. For me, that’s one of the biggest things young people need to get right, they need to find the right environment that will ensure that they flourish. I did my post-doc with Bob Langer at MIT, and that is a very entrepreneurial environment and one that is focused entirely on professional development and maximizing impact. While I met with Bob several times during my three years in the lab, it was from being fully submersed in that environment that gave me many ideas of how I wanted to run my lab.

I think that the biggest thing for the young generation is not be so concerned about what your work is per se, but be more focused about the environment you want to submerse yourself within. Ensure that you have a good mentor that’s going to be looking out for your best interests. A good mentor writes letters of support for people after they leave the lab, so I think it’s not just taking care of people or helping guide them while they’re there, but afterwards as well.

We’ve read that you are a mentor. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your mentees?

There’s a lot of self-fulfillment and satisfaction that you can get out of surrounding yourself with people who have incredible potential and who you can help in some way unleash that potential and then go on to do great things.

I run a highly multi-disciplinary laboratory. We have people from mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, material science, basic biology, and immunology. We’ve had a gastrointestinal surgeon, cardiac fellow, a bunch of M.D.s from Harvard Medical School. There is really minimal overlap in the expertise of people in the lab. So when people are brainstorming together, they always have something unique to bring to the project, that no-one else can provide, and that provides validation, so everyone feels good and is motivated to work together to solve the problem.

I’ve structured my lab so that I never get comfortable. I’m always to a certain degree in a very vulnerable position, because I bring people to the lab who have a lot more expertise than I do in any particular area. My lab is very lateral; it’s not a hierarchy. I learn from mentees every day-- their expertise or perspectives. I’m constantly learning from them and then they’re learning from me how to maximize rigor and impact. That’s the kind of environment I’ve tried to establish in the lab. We rely on each other.

I initiated presentation competitions in my lab. People can get up and present on anything they want, but they only have three minutes. The group provides constructive feedback on what they liked and didn’t like, and then at the end everyone votes on the best presenter and the best critique. And I hand out prizes that are worth $40-$50. This really builds a sense of community in the lab, and everyone is learning from each other, and I’m constantly learning techniques to bring to my presentations!

What do you enjoy in your spare time, if you have spare time?

I enjoy spending time with my family. I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. Family time is a big thing for me. In addition to family vacations, I try to take my kids on a trip, just one-on-one at least once a year. I work long hours, and I want to make sure I carve out time for these types of things, for making memories. I also try to walk 6-7 miles a day which is time that I relax, reflect on my life and develop strategies for different things.

Also, Saturdays I take my kids to activities including soccer and dance classes.

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t in the medical field?

At one point I wanted to be a doctor, that was one of my dreams, and then I applied to med school, but I didn’t get in. From a young age I wanted to design medical devices—I didn’t really know what that meant or how I’d do it, but I was very excited about it. I registered in a biology program at McGill, and then transferred to engineering at the end of my first year. My thought was I would do engineering and then go become a doctor, and then I could combine the two to develop new medical devices and therapies. Then I thought, maybe I don’t need to be a doctor. As long as I learned how to speak with doctors and ask the right questions, I could use my engineering degree, which I consider a degree in problem solving, to design solutions with the patient in mind.

Want to hear more about Dr. Jeff Karp’s innovations? Register to hear him speak at the Health Professionals Annual Breakfast on Sunday, November 15.

CJP welcomes an open dialogue!  Please refer to our policy for more information.


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