An Ecosystem of Innovation
Like Hai-Quan Mao, Jennifer Elisseeff remembers a time before the university’s encouragement of commercialization. “It has been a night and day shift,” says Elisseeff, director of the Johns Hopkins Translational Tissue Engineering Center. “I started my first company in 2004 and when I think about it now, the number of people telling me not to do it was absurd. They said things like, ‘Well, maybe you want to leave the university and go to California to start a company.”
Rather than flee westward, Elisseeff elected to remain in Baltimore and help create what she calls “the new ecosystem of innovation.”
“We got a little basement lab in the Stieff Building and that became the incubator,” she remembers. “It was nothing like today, when there are so many resources to commercialize your technology, to help you translate from bench to bedside.”
In 2017, the Stieff Building (former home to Stieff Silver) retains its original, 1930s vintage clock on the pediment above the entrance. But the interiorof the venerable factory has been completely transformed into another state-of-the-art suite of labs and conference rooms for tomorrow’s infant Teslas and Microsofts. And Elisseeff is not only a renowned clinical researcher (she holds the Morton Goldberg Chair at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute), she also is the interim CEO of Aegeria Soft Tissue LLC.
Aegeria, named for the Roman nymph of regeneration, is the corporate venture that markets the Elisseeff team’s latest advance in soft-tissue reconstruction—a sterile regenerative material invented by Elisseeff in her Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Laboratory that mimics and replaces the adipose cells that are removed during surgery or lost through traumatic injury.
Elisseeff, whose daughter serves in the U.S. Army, partnered with the military for the first-phase trials of her advances in soft-tissue replacement. This work grew out of research that Elisseeff and her colleagues conducted with Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, which involved co-developing a new wrinkle filler.
“Combining that partnership with our lab research on stem cells and what types of environments they need to develop tissue,” she says, “we designed an acellular adipose technology that combined basic science. In fact, our collaboration with Kythera led to my interests in the immune system and our current pursuit of regenerative
immunotherapies … There is always a question of, When do we transition a technology out of the lab?” How do you hand it off and hand it off smartly?
“Think about the passing of the baton in a relay race—at a certain point, both the runner who is passing the baton and the runner who is receiving it are both in motion. It’s the time when they both are running together that is key—or else the baton is dropped.
“Industry collaboration makes me a better researcher,” she says. “As a biomedical engineer, we’re looking for things that can impact human health. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I think that if you focus on doing the best science possible and providing solutions for clinical challenges, success will eventually happen.”