Why engineering is driving biomedical research
Vincent Forlenza ’75 is president of Becton, Dickinson and Co., a leading global medical technology company that manufactures and sells medical devices and diagnostics. Headquartered in New Jersey, BD employs 28,000 people in 50 countries and serves healthcare institutions, life science researchers, clinical laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. Forlenza oversees BD’s three business segments (BD Medical, BD Diagnostics and BD Biosciences), as well as its International and Quality functions. A member of the advisory board of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, Forlenza earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Lehigh in 1975 and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1980.
Q: Do you think research in biomedicine will spur a revolution in science and engineering as information technology (IT) has?
A: IT and biomedicine have actually been reinforcing each other for several decades. Advances in life sciences depend on the ability to generate and sort through vast amounts of data. Progress in understanding genes, proteins and cells, for example, has been driven by advances in biology and enabled by IT. At BD, we make a cell sorter that can analyze 40,000 cells per second and generate 14 different data points on each. That kind of capability will continue to drive progress in biotechnology and biomedical engineering.
Q: The U.S. healthcare system has given rise to spectacular advances in medicine. How can health-related research support breakthrough progress and be affordable?
A: You start by building cost-effectiveness into your goals. For example, new biological drugs are very expensive. Industry is working to personalize medicine by targeting drugs to patients who respond to them. Pharmaceutical companies have invested in new diagnostics that segment patients into responders and nonresponders. You test the patient before you administer the drug to see if he or she will respond.
Q: What are the next big research frontiers in medical technology? What role will engineers play?
A: One trend is toward more biological medicines. Plants to produce these drugs can cost $500 million and will pose many process engineering challenges. I see an enormous need for engineers to solve these challenges and move therapeutic cells from research to practice. In the area of diabetes management, there’s a big effort to create an artificial pancreas. This will require mechanical engineers to develop small pumps and chemical and materials engineers to make sensors.
Q: How can research institutions and corporations collaborate in the field of medical technology?
A: By understanding what each other does well, by grasping the realities of shared risk and shared rewards, and by aligning goals, practical relationships, leveraged opportunities and access between patients and technologies. Universities do the early research. They communicate how their areas of expertise can be leveraged. Companies communicate their needs. This provides the basis for collaboration.
For example, Lehigh and the Mayo Clinic are seeking to marry Lehigh’s engineering know-how with Mayo’s clinical expertise. (See cover story) BD is supporting this; its role would be to provide internships for the Ph.D. program. Our goal is to train clinical entrepreneurs by building engineering requirements and an understanding of cost into the program right from the start.
Q: How can a university have the most impact on biomedical research?
A: By leveraging its core competences, building centers of excellence and partnering with industry. For example, Lehigh does not have a medical school, but it has capabilities in engineering and it has a biomedical engineering program. Many life science problems involve materials science and engineering. Understanding the environment in which cells grow is a materials problem. Also, a tremendous amount of value for customers and for society is driven by continuous improvement. Engineering skills in manufacturing and process development are critical here. Industry needs people from schools like Lehigh who have the mentality that something can always be made better.
Q: How does BD come up with new ideas for products and services?
A: We look for large unmet healthcare needs that relate to one of our three core businesses—medical devices, diagnostics and biosciences. All of these businesses are generating new opportunities. We create business cases around these opportunities and we interact with our customers to discuss their needs. Then we make a judgment as to the areas where we think we can have the biggest impact.
Q: Firms like yours rely on a pipeline of science and engineering talent. What are we not doing in K-12 and in universities that we ought to be doing to support this?
A: We haven’t done a good job in the early grades of linking challenges of the day, such as energy, to science. Going into science and engineering isn’t viewed as being cool. We also need to attract more people into science teaching. The people we hire at BD come from schools that prepare them well in the fundamentals. But more needs to be done in cross-functional areas. Students have to learn better communication and management skills and acquire an ability to work on cross-functional teams.
Q: As an engineer and corporate leader, how does engineering thinking influence the decisions you make?
A: Engineering teaches you to take complex problems, define them, identify their key variables, understand their relationships, and build models to quantify them. That’s what you do in business all the time. Also, engineering teaches you to make a decision with the best approximation you can come up with. That’s the real world. We do the best analysis we can, but at the end of the day we have to make a call.
Q: What is your most memorable accomplishment at BD?
A: Working with the Clinton Foundation to provide low-cost diagnostic testing for AIDS patients in poor countries. We started doing HIV testing in five countries. Now we’re working in more than 35 countries and we’ve added TB testing. We give these countries special pricing, about 60 to 70 percent less than in the developed world. We teach people good laboratory practices, how to do testing and how to service their instruments. This is a common theme in the developing world. You can’t just sell a product. You have to back it up with medical infrastructure.
Q: Talk about BD’s work in Africa and other regions of the developing world.
A: We saw that some people were reusing vaccination syringes, which causes HIV to spread. We worked with them to create very low-cost, auto-disabled syringes that you could use only once. In China, people were infusing drugs with a wing needle set. This is not a good device; the developed world uses IV catheters. We knew the Chinese market couldn’t afford a regular catheter, so we developed a less-expensive hybrid device that has been incredibly successful.
Q: What attracted you to chemical engineering?
A: In Engineering 1 at Lehigh, a professor from each engineering department taught a class to illustrate the kinds of problems each field solves. Prof. Fred Stein in chemical engineering demonstrated an analog computer model of a brewery. It was fascinating.
Q: What is the most striking difference between the Lehigh you attended and Lehigh today?
A: The integrated cross-college degree programs represent the single biggest difference. Departments were much more siloed when I was at Lehigh. You didn’t have the collaboration across colleges. Lehigh has carved out a leadership position in this area and is attracting great students.