Professor Emeritus Sridhar Kota
From researcher to inventor to entrepreneur to D.C. policymaker for engineering and manufacturing, recently retired U-M Professor Sridhar Kota reflects on the struggles and rewards of translating ideas to products and how the system as a whole can do better.
Kota’s positions and accomplishments are many. He was a professor of mechanical engineering at U-M from 1987 until his retirement in August this year. He founded two spinouts based on innovations inspired at U-M: aerospace technology company FlexSys Inc. in 2001 and medical device newco Inspire Rx in 2020.
At the core of Kota’s research are designing materials that are simultaneously strong and flexible. These materials are everywhere in nature but, while offering myriad functional advantages, are difficult to synthetically engineer.
“Bringing flexibility and strength into our engineering designs has significant benefits,” explained Kota. The strong-and-flexible design of FlexSys’s aircraft wings, called FlexFoil, are behind the technology’s success in developing the world’s first modern aircraft with shape adaptive wings to realize significant fuel savings, noise reduction and durability. FlexFoil has been successfully flight tested by the Air Force and NASA and the company is now working on deploying the technology on military aircraft but has also expanded into other segments including automotives and robotics.
Kota’s drive to put ideas to the test and desire to help in the COVID-19 pandemic led to a different line of research that has benefited healthcare workers and patients. A collaborative development effort between Weil Institute (formerly MCIRCC), Michigan Medicine, FlexSys Inc. and InspireRx LLC led to portable versions of negative pressure rooms, dubbed the AerosolVE Helmet and AerosolVE Tent. Kota, along with Michigan Medicine collaborators and Emergency Medicine physicians, Drs. Kevin Ward, Ben Bassin and Nathan Haas founded InspireRx LLC which licensed the innovations. In June 2021, the AerosolVE Tent received Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. Both devices have been used successfully at Michigan Medicine to treat COVID-19 patients while protecting healthcare workers at the U-M hospital.
Kota’s desire to turn ideas and designs into working products that benefit people, and to have those products made and manufactured in the U.S., spurred not only his academic and company goals but also his advocacy nationally to enable all academic researchers to transition their inventions into prototypes and products made in the U.S.
Setting the Stage
Kota’s combination of drive, fearlessness and perseverance enabled him to complete the cycle of idea to scalable product and identify along the way where the pain points are that the system as a whole can help improve.
“Going back to the early days in my career, I wanted to not just write a paper. If it was a good idea, I wanted to make a prototype and see if it works. But to turn an idea into a real product of value in society – one that is safe, reliable, cost-effective – that’s where the real challenge is in engineering,” he explained.
Seeing the challenge through from beginning to end, even if the idea doesn’t turn into a viable product, is where the learning comes through for the inventor, Kota said. “If you don’t attempt to complete the cycle, you lose the learn-by-doing part.”
He puts the dedication that those efforts took into perspective with FlexSys’s work to incorporate FlexFoil into wing design. “To make even a minor design change to an aircraft, it takes a long time to get FAA approval. Now you’re talking about fundamentally changing the design of the wing.”
Kota’s work on the Aerosolve products began in March 2020 when he was introduced to the need for technologies to combat COVID-19 by Michigan Medicine. A quick brainstorm session at home with his daughter (a first-year medical student at the time), a close collaboration with Dr. Kevin Ward and multiple trips to hardware stores for prototyping materials, were the catalysts for what would become the AerosolVE Helmet and AerosolVE Tent. Dr. Ward, Dr. Bassin and Dr. Haas played an instrumental role in product testing, design iterations and of course in treating several COVID patients with Aerosolve Devices under an “Innovative Care Protocol”.
The Aerosolve products enable patients to receive oxygen via a nasal cannula, rather than a ventilator, while protecting healthcare workers from exposure to exhaled virus. Nasal cannulas are safer for patients than ventilators because they are non-invasive, but more dangerous for healthcare workers because patients exhale virus into their surroundings when using a cannula.
The Aerosolve products reduce exposure because they are designed to keep the air pressure lower inside of the devices than outside of them, containing the virus within the device and directing the contaminated air through a HEPA filter. The same principle is used in hospital isolation rooms, or negative pressure rooms. A more portable and scalable version of an isolation room was an obvious solution to Kota and his daughter to make safer options more accessible for patients and healthcare workers. The Aerosolve Helmet is worn by the patient – it provides 100X more air changes and costs 100X less than a negative pressure room. The Aerosolve Tent creates a larger negative pressure space to enable clinicians to perform medical procedures on an infectious patient.
Bridging the Gap
Having gained hands-on experience with the challenges in translating academic engineering ideas into products at scale, Kota sought to influence policy at a national level to address those challenges.
He served as the Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from 2009-2012.
“One of the key accomplishments there was to initiate and champion the creation of manufacturing innovation institutes nationally,” Kota said. There are now 16 institutes with different technical specialties working towards maturing emerging technologies and their manufacturing-readiness to enable U.S.- based manufacturing.
Kota was also the founding Executive Director of the U.S. consortium MForesight: Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight. MForesight’s mission is to “engage the U.S. manufacturing community to discover, prioritize, develop, and disseminate emerging technologies and manufacturing needs aligned with national priorities.”
The need for a better translation infrastructure in engineering comes from the evolution in R&D practices over the past 30 years at large multinational corporations (MNCs) and original equipment manufacturers in the U.S., and their short-term focus on shareholder profits, Kota explained. These large MNCs have the financial resources to license and develop an early stage invention from academia, but are no longer focussed on longer term investments needed to take it all the way from idea to prototype to product, at least in hardware related innovations. “There’s a lot of engineering and manufacturing know-how that happens between the initial invention and patent, and the final product,” he added.
Small and medium companies, on the other hand, are motivated and have the expertise for the early stage R&D, Kota said, but they often don’t have the resources. This is where changes at the federal level can help academics and small companies bridge the gap between idea and product, Kota added.
“There’s a lot of funding coming from Washington D.C. for basic research, but we also need to fund translational research. I proposed to fund universities an additional 5% of their basic research budget and put it to translational research centers where you bring in talented engineers and business folks to mature inventions into prototypes and products,” said Kota. “Unless we do that, the taxpayers who funded the basic research won’t get a return on their investment in R&D.”
Technology commercialization offices also have important roles to play, Kota said, from educating policy makers on the pain points of translational research, to providing mechanisms that better enable the more agile small- and medium-sized companies to license and develop academic inventions.
Since his retirement from U-M, Kota has been busy with Inspire Rx and FlexSys. He is also working towards writing a book on policy, and remains actively engaged with Washington on Manufacturing policy issues. His longer-term plan is to write a book on Bio-inspired Design.
U-M has a financial interest in some of the companies featured through licensing agreements or investments.