In this episode of The Lattice podcast, we had the opportunity to chat with professor Ali Khademhosseini about his career, starting when he was a chemical engineering graduate student to becoming a full professor at Harvard, bicoastal move to UCLA, three-time entrepreneur, becoming an Amazon Fellow, to finally becoming the founder and director of the Terasaki Institute, a new educational research center that also wants to build young companies. While Ali has been incredibly productive in academia, his career trajectory is clearly towards academic entrepreneurship, an exciting concept to many scientists, especially in light of the pandemic and the rise of companies like Moderna. Given his success, I dug a little deeper into his secret sauce to achieve success. Fortunately, Ali was willing to share it with everyone as well as his evolving view on what is meaningful success to him and what he envisions his next achievement milestone. Since I knew Ali from his many works on biomaterials and 3D printing, we also discussed his vision for the field.
Selected Excerpts From the Podcast:
How did you first encounter 3D printing?
“I did my Master’s degree in a stem cell lab. And as an engineer, I found that lots of biology were done in a way that’s not really controlled. In addition, there’s not nearly as much understanding of what the cells are doing. So I became really fascinated early on by trying to create more control over what the cells see in tissue culture or in a 3D environment. And that’s what got me excited about biomaterials and early on with microfabrication technologies to be able to control that microenvironment. and subsequent to that, when I started my own faculty position, I started getting more into some of these areas, and it’s specifically one of the things that I use, there’s a lot of microfabrication techniques to control gel structures and molding and light patterning and all that stuff.
It wasn’t until a few years after I started that, 3D Bioprinting actually started. And early on, I was really lucky because one of the early companies Organovo worked with us to really get a 3D printer into my lab. And that got us to work on that area. And after that, I started getting more and more attached to it. I started realizing that actually, this whole 3d bioprinting, which was actually going on few years before I got into it, was a really exciting field.
And then we had some really great postdocs that actually came to the lab and really grew that area. We developed a lot of 3D printers ourselves. And we had like, lots of really cool stuff come out of it. So it was really a progression from early on when I wanted to control cell microenvironment to really opportunistic things like working with Organovo, very early in their development.”
Who were instrumental along your career?
“I’ve always been able to get really involved and really passionate about what I do at the time. When I went to university, I started to understand more about why I’m going to a university why I’m actually doing science, I started making connections between different things that I learned, and knowing these connections became exciting for me. It wasn’t until I went to a lab that I actually had my first scientific mentor. So of course, you know, as you grew up, your parents are always there for you. And so they’re very influential.
But in the lab, I started having scientific mentors, and some of my early professors in Toronto were very inspirational. And when I went to MIT, when I interacted with Bob Langer, who’s really a historic figure, that was really a turning point, because I started to realize that, wow, you know, if a person can accomplish so much, then we should have no limits on ourselves.
And you know, we shouldn’t just say oh, this is the standard, this is the norm because you know him as one person that’s accomplished an incredible amount. So and then you start picking up things from the mentor, not necessarily by them telling you but just by osmosis and observation. So now, how you set up goals, how you actually go through step by step to achieve them, how you surround yourself with people who can help you. You know, all of those things are very important that I feel that during my graduate school and early faculty years, I actually picked up a lot of those skills.”
What’s the secret sauce of your success?
” The secret sauce is just working with a lot of good people. So and that’s really the only thing about it, I try not to be a rate-limiting step. And I try to take advantage of the opportunities that are around me, make sure that if there’s an idea or a publication or a person that can that I can help develop, then I will actually spend time on that and, and I try not to have too many, what I would call like wasted time, for example, things that I know are just useless, I try not to spend time on them, I try to kind of just quickly deviate and focus on something that I can do. And the other thing is really focusing on finishing.
I tell some of my folks, it’s not necessarily about how hard you work, because I know some people love to work hard. But working hard is one element of success, you have to work hard, and at the same time, be able to actually take that hard work and finish things.
And finishing is really just as important as starting things. So I’ve been very focused on finishing projects and having a very clear vision right off the bat, what is it that finish looks like? Because especially in science, you can continue exploring new things. So being able to have the vision and the end goal in mind, I think is really important in being productive.”
What did your experience at Amazon teach you?
How do you bring ideas from bench top to commercialization?
How to become a successful Academic Entrepreneur?
What are the major missions of the Terasaki Institute?
About Our Guest for this Episode:
Ali Khademhosseini is currently the CEO and Founding Director at the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation. Previously, he was a Professor of Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, and Radiology at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). He joined UCLA as the Levi Knight Chair in November 2017 from Harvard University where he was a Professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and faculty at the Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and as well as associate faculty at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. At Harvard University, he directed the Biomaterials Innovation Research Center (BIRC) a leading initiative in making engineered biomedical materials. Dr. Khademhosseini is an Associate Editor for ACS Nano. He served as the Research Highlights editor for Lab on a Chip. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), Biomaterials Science and Engineering (FBSE), Materials Research Society (MRS), NANOSMAT Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is also the recipient of the Mustafa Prize ($500,000 prize) and is a member of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering, Royal Society of Canada and Canadian Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Inventors. He is an author on >650 peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and review papers, >70 book chapters/edited books, and >40 patents/patent applications. He has been cited >74,000 times and has an H-index of 139. He has made seminal contributions to modifying hydrogels and developing novel biomaterial solutions for addressing pressing problems in healthcare. He has founded 2 companies, Obsidio Medical and Bioray. He received his Ph.D. in bioengineering from MIT (2005), and MASc (2001) and BASc (1999) degrees from the University of Toronto both in chemical engineering.