Texas Invests in Engineers of Tomorrow

Author: 
Shana Leonard

Texas universities may be renowned for their prowess on the football field. But, thanks to several strong programs and a little help from local companies, they’re producing elite players for the medtech field as well.

During the past decade, the biotech industry was identified by the state government as a cluster that demonstrates potential for long-term, local growth. And supporting that growth is a steady stream of skilled workers and innovative ideas hailing from the state’s universities. Texas did, after all, rank third in the nation for bioscience graduates and university R&D expenditures in biosciences, according to the Battelle Institute’s 2008 state-by-state assessment of bioscience initiatives.

“We see a lot of innovation in this market happening at the startup and university level, from research to product development,” says Daniela Koeppe, worldwide medical communications manager for Texas Instruments (TI; Dallas). TI provides analog, embedded processing, and wireless semiconductor products to the medical device industry.

Taking advantage of this local talent, TI has formed a symbiotic relationship with several local colleges, including the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) and the University of Texas at Dallas. In addition to offering co-op and internship programs, the company contributes funding to some projects spearheaded by PhD students and research professors.

“It’s not something we’re going to manufacture today, but the fact that we’re able to work with them and they work with us is a very attractive relationship,” notes Veronica Marques, business development manager, medical business unit, at TI. “We’re also developing a skill set that can come in and benefit TI; they can come in and finish their work here. The university is influencing us and we’re influencing the university as well. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”

Software and hardware supplier National Instruments (NI; Austin) also maintains close ties with universities and encourages budding engineers. Along with participating in internship programs, the company sells its LABVIEW software and testing equipment to teaching labs at Rice University, UTA, and Texas A&M, as well as about 5000 institutions worldwide. And among the young engineers that benefit from these learning tools is the rising tide of biomedical engineers at UTA, according to Mark Walters, academic product manager at NI. He speculates that at UTA, biomedical engineering could soon edge out electrical engineering in terms of popularity as major. If so, this swell of talented, skilled biomedical engineers entering the workforce in the next decade could contribute to further elevating the local medtech industry.

And not only is the new crop of Texas-based biomedical engineers big and boasting familiarity with common real-word equipment such as that provided by NI, it’s also being educated with direct input from industry in many cases. “We’re on the advisory board for the biomedical engineering department at Texas A&M,” says Greg Crouch, life sciences business director at NI. “The dean of biomedical engineering actually spearheaded an advisory board to gather input from industry as to what needs to be taught—not only at the undergrad but at the research level as well. They’re trying hard to create these collaborative efforts.” Crouch notes that representatives from St. Jude and other influential companies are also involved.

Collaboration and practical application of theory are at the root of such engineering-centric programs as Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK). The OEDK “provides a space for undergraduate students majoring in bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, civil and environmental engineering, computational and applied mathematics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and material science, and statistics to design, prototype, and deploy solutions to real-world engineering challenges,” according to its Web site.

Use of the space and equipment has already paid off in terms of getting students’ creative juices flowing, according to Walters. He notes that some savvy students pioneered a project focused on understanding how muscles in the hand work and react, which could aid in treatment of such conditions as carpal tunnel syndrome. “Most engineering students learn theory but are not able to apply it early on,” Walters notes. “The Design Kitchen lets anyone have access to equipment so they can just check out a table and build something.”

Programs such as the OEDK demonstrate not only the state’s commitment to building up the local biotech cluster, but also awareness of broader challenges. “We understand that tomorrow’s big problems will be solved by some of the more innovative and creative young minds. Making sure that they have that solid foundation and understanding of those engineering concepts is going to be important to solve those issues,” Walters says. “It’s cultivating the talent that we can use in our R&D, but from a social impact standpoint, we’re all going to have to deal with the problems of tomorrow and it’s important that we have engineers that have the understanding to tackle those problems.”

Read about the current flourishing Texas medical device industry in a recent Regional Focus feature.