April 4, 2012 — U.Va. Innovation, a new initiative dedicated to maximizing the impact of University of Virginia research discoveries, has named Robin A. Felder its 2012 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year. The highest honor bestowed on a U.Va. innovator, the award recognizes an individual or team each year whose research is making a "major impact."
"Through his leadership and truly pioneering work in medical automation and basic biomedical research, Robin Felder has significantly advanced laboratory efficiency and patient care," said W. Mark Crowell, executive director of U.Va. Innovation and associate vice president for research. Felder will be honored April 24 at U.Va. Innovation's annual awards reception in the Rotunda.
A self-described "serial entrepreneur," Felder has launched nine companies out of the University over the past two decades, including WellAWARE Systems, Global Cell Solutions and Medical Automation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing costs and improving efficiency in health care systems.
A professor of pathology and associate director of clinical chemistry at U.Va., Felder credits the launch of WellAWARE (then Home Guardian), a provider of technology-based solutions facilitating independent living for seniors, to a visit to a German health club, where he happened to notice the needle on a scale moving to his heartbeat.
"I had this 'aha' moment," Felder said, "that if you can measure your heartbeat through the sole of your foot, imagine what additional signals your body is giving off and what we could use to translate this into the passive continuous monitoring of wellness in the home."
Inviting collaborators to invent around this concept, Felder led the team in building a variety of sensors that would ultimately detect such activities as sleep, footsteps, falls, dining and bathing patterns, and even one's mood, allowing aging seniors to live independently with the security afforded by a sophisticated, automated wellness monitoring system.
Kevin Greene, a partner at Valhalla Partners, was instrumental in getting WellAWARE off the ground. "Building a new company, from invention to innovation, is replete with challenges," he said. "Professor Robin Felder personifies the optimism, paranoia and courage it takes to foster a University project into a commercially available solution that is affecting the lives of thousands of senior citizens across the country.
"I take great pride in celebrating the innovation revolution Professor Felder is helping to lead at the University of Virginia. Mr. Jefferson would be proud."
Systems are now installed in 2,200 residences from Virginia to South Dakota, reporting minute-to-minute data on the wellness of elderly occupants. WellAWARE raised $7.5 million in growth capital in 2009.
Based on technology that was named a "Top 10 Innovation" by The Scientist magazine in 2009, Global Cell Solutions is advancing regenerative medicine, drug discovery, cancer research and other efforts through the automation of 3-D cell culture. Using an automated bench-top system, Global Cell's novel approach facilitates cell culture that mimics in vivo biology and physiology that could one day obviate the need for animal studies and provide high-quality replacement body cells, Felder said. The company has raised more than $1.5 million in local investments.
The author of more than 120 peer-reviewed publications, Felder has received more than $30 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, with additional funding from industry sources, venture capital and federal Small Business Technology Transfer awards. Felder has been named on 12 issued U.S. patents, with an additional seven U.S. and international patents pending.
In 2009, Felder received the prestigious Engelberger Award for Leadership in Robotics. In 2010, the American Association for Clinical Chemistry and the National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry joined in honoring him with the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Clinical Chemistry, marking the first time the organizations have honored the same awardee.
Describing the entrepreneurial landscape of years ago as "a challenging maze," Felder said he thinks things are looking up for today's would-be entrepreneurs.
"There wasn't enough information back in the 'good old days' about how to be an entrepreneur and what kind of steps you had to take," he said. "Now we're a whole lot smarter, and there are high-quality resources dedicated to facilitating translation."
Felder's companies have benefited from such University resources as the Venture Forward mentoring program (formerly the T100 program) and the Darden School of Business' Darden Incubator and business plan and concept competitions. Off Grounds, Felder has also received support from the Small Business Development Center and Charlottesville Business Innovation Council.
"Don't try to do it all by yourself," he cautions aspiring faculty-entrepreneurs. "Get good advice, and don't be afraid to fail fast and then rebound with an even better opportunity."
Named for U.Va. Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard F. Edlich and Christopher J. "Goose" Henderson, a 25-year veteran of privately owned financial services businesses, the Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year Award recognizes an individual or team each year whose research discovery is making a major impact. Previously known as the Edlich-Henderson Inventor of the Year award, the award title and criteria were modified this year to be more inclusive of University innovators pursuing a variety of different paths to achieve impact for their discoveries.