A New Mentor for Entrepreneurial Engineers

2/7/20 Pratt School of Engineering

A Q&A with Inga Deakin, the incoming Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Duke BME

A New Mentor for Entrepreneurial Engineers

As the new Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Inga Deakin will use her entrepreneurial experience to guide faculty and students who want to turn promising research projects into commercial products. She comes to Duke with a background in venture capital and startups in the United Kingdom, where she helped fund numerous researchers, cultivate partnerships and ultimately sell their products. As the second EIR in Duke BME, Deakin will split her time between BME and the Office of Licensing & Ventures’ Duke New Ventures, where she’ll support startups focused on medical devices, biotechnology and other innovative biomedical products.

What drew you to Duke BME?

Biomedical Engineering as a discipline is really broad, and that’s one of the things that’s really exciting about the department––there are so many different technical skills and approaches to these long-standing problems. It’s apparent that many of the researchers in this department are developing new platforms that can be used in a variety of ways, like diagnosing diseases or for different industrial applications, like purifying antibodies.  The breadth of experience and expertise across the department is really interesting, including wet lab biology, hardware engineering for medical devices, software and combinations of these specialties. There are lots of opportunities for entrepreneurship and commercialization, and I’m excited to go to the different labs and meet these teams and see how I can help them move their ideas forward.

What was your entrepreneurial experience like prior to accepting the position in Duke BME?

Prior to accepting this position, I was chief of staff at a liquid biopsy company in Research Triangle Park, which was a spinout from the University of Cambridge.  The company was developing technology that could improve the diagnosis of lung cancer. Before that I was a  Principal at Imperial Innovations/Touchstone Innovations (now IP Group), which is a venture capital fund. We raised £450m (over $580 million) to invest in spinouts from Cambridge University, Oxford, Imperial College and University College London. Our goal was to help these researchers with early commercialization questions to build a plan and team to deliver the key experiments and developments to de-risk an investment opportunity. We were often the initial seed investor and then would lead to build an investment syndicate of VCs and corporate partners.

During my time in venture capital, I represented the fund on the board of five companies, and I think my strength comes from that range of seeing all sorts of startups that had unique needs, whether it’s expertise, funding or even resources like lab space. For example, I worked with a helical stent company to bring in a new investor to fund a US regulatory study, which helped their company get acquired by a larger company. I also worked with an ophthalmology company with a new platform to deliver medicine to the retina, so we were looking at ways to commercialize that for a multitude of clinical indications. I also worked with PhD students to set up a company called Puridify, which developed more efficient processes to purify large quantities of antibodies. The company had multiple pharma partnerships and was then acquired by GE Healthcare. Prior to my VC experience I worked in a biotech incubator in London and completed a PhD in Neuroscience from Oxford. I think that experience of working directly with the faculty and students and helping to guide their work from the very beginning helped prepare me for this role.

How will you support the entrepreneurial community in Duke BME?

I’ll be on campus every day, so I’m available to students and faculty who have ideas that they’d like to develop commercially. I enjoy meeting in the investigator’s labs to see the technologies in development and teams in action. Being on campus also means that I can more actively track programs such as through the design curriculum or programs like Design Health. It’s important to recognize that enabling technologies to develop outside academia doesn’t always require VC money and a new company, it’s about finding the right path for each project, and an early license to an established company can be a great outcome. My impression is there’s also a growing community of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who are interested in making startups based on their research, and one of my goals is to help entrepreneurial programs, like the Entrepreneurial Post-Doctoral Fellowship or BRiDGE, continue to grow and attract researchers with those innovative ideas.

I’m also looking forward to collaborating with leaders across the Pratt School of Engineering, including Associate Dean Ken Gall and Mattson Family Director Bill Walker in Engineering Entrepreneurship. My work also includes Duke’s Office of Licensing & Ventures, where I’ll serve as one of five Mentors-in-Residence, to work with faculty startup projects and provide guidance ranging from creating pitch decks to developing market assessments and making introductions to potential investors. I think our entrepreneurial efforts across both engineering and Duke as a whole are well-aligned, and I’m eager to use my biomedical and VC experience to help support Duke BME.