Between creating a new 3-D manufacturing method and engineering medical cures on the nano-level, it may look like Joseph DeSimone’s interests are all over the map.
But at the heart of every new innovation made by the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences at Carolina is a toolbox of skill and salesmanship fused by his passion to better lives.
“There’s been nothing more rewarding than to apply our craft to help improve the human condition,” DeSimone said recently. “I’m passionate about improving lives and using our craft — polymer science — to do so.”
DeSimone, who is also a William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at NC State University and of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill, has spent decades searching for answers to problems in fields outside his own wheelhouse. He has relied on a mix of passion, polymer science expertise and salesmanship to bring an idea from the lab to the market.
This combination has led DeSimone to become a leading innovator. He has found success commercially as the holder of more than 150 patents and in research as a member of all three branches of the U.S. National Academies.
Just this week, he was named the winner of Northwestern University’s inaugural Kabiller Prize for advances in nanotechnology for medicine and biology, and then a company he co-founded, Liquidia, announced the extension of a collaboration project with GlaxoSmithKline to develop and commercialize inhaled therapeutics.
“Joe has seen more than most faculty members have ever seen on his meteoric rise to notoriety,” said Ed Samulski, Cary C. Boshamer Professor of Chemistry, interim chair for Applied Physical Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill and cofounder of Carbon3D. “He can bring that cutting edge perspective, that national perspective, that industrial perspective to the University.”
The way chemistry professor Samulski sees it, there are two kinds of people.
There are the ones who are stuck working inside a canyon, unable to see beyond the walls. And then there are those who can see the lay of the land and ignite ideas across the board to create something new.
DeSimone, he said, is the latter.
“Creative people see connections between disparate things and see how to exploit an observation in one area of science to do something in another area,” Samulski said. “It’s the uncanny ability to see those connections.”
The source for making those connections, DeSimone said, is simply expanding your social circle beyond those in your field to learn where the problems are.
“I think at the end of the day, we learn the most from those we have the least in common with,” he said. “If you’re really trying to maximize learning and maximize the opportunities for you to have an impact, you need to talk to other people that are outside your field so that you can see how your craft and be applied elsewhere.”
Learning the problems and seeing how a new approach can lead to solutions creates a fertile ground for innovation, DeSimone said.
For example, talking to a cardiologist was what led DeSimone to create a bioabsorbable, drug-eluting heart stent. And watching how others engineered 3-D printing methods fueled his move into light-powered manufacturing, which started Carbon3D.
The company, based in Silicon Valley, redefined 3-D printing by using a light source to create an object out of a pool of liquid.
“We’re not mechanical engineers, and therefore moving into a field that has been dominated by mechanical engineers gives us — at some levels — an advantage because we think differently,” he said.
Coming from the outside of the field, DeSimone and Carbon3D were able to spark innovation in 3-D printing by evolving from the layer-by-layer approach to using light and oxygen to continuously fuse objects together.
The technology, known as Continuous Liquid Interface Production, or CLIP, could elevate 3-D printing technology from hobbyist status to a new way of manufacturing, DeSimone said.
“What we are really trying to do is to help major manufacturers to use it,” he said. “That’s a harder bridge to cross. That’s where we’re focused: real manufacturing, large-volume important commercial goods that are complex that offer real performance enhancements to products”
With new ideas such as CLIP, the key to successful innovation and creativity is to think about ideas through three lenses — a concept he embraces from Jim Collins’s book Good to Great.
The first is understanding what a person is passionate about and what motivates them.
“That’s a question of what keeps us up at night or gets us up in the morning,” DeSimone said.
Then comes understanding an individual’s toolbox. This, DeSimone said, isn’t something the person is simply good at doing –but rather what they aspire to be great at doing.
The final lens – one Samulski believes DeSimone has mastered — is comprehending the financial implications of the idea.
“It could mean how does one deliver a very sophisticated, complicated vaccine to some to the poorest places on the planet,” DeSimone said. “It’s really easy to be creative if you have no financial constraints.”
It’s hard to believe now, but DeSimone was almost passed up by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With a lack of post-doctoral work after receiving his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in 1990, University faculty members hesitated to interview DeSimone.
At the suggestion of DeSimone’s graduate school advisor, Samulski gave him a shot and invited him to speak at the school.
“Most beginning, interviewing assistant professors talk about something derivative of their Ph.D.,” Samulski said. “Joe talked about completely new things, in particular that he wanted to make polymers in liquid carbon dioxide — something that had never been done before.”
“By the time he left here, it was clear that although he had no post-doctoral experience, he was imaginative, creative and a fantastic sales person for his ideas. Everybody wanted to work with Joe.”
From a professorship at UNC-Chapel Hill to securing $141 million to hone 3-D manufacturing, DeSimone’s ability to sell his ideas — and himself — has helped him bring so many of his visions to life.
And sometimes, Samulski said, passion and salesmanship matter more than the science.
“It’s a difference between imagining something has commercial potential and really understanding all the steps required to get an idea from lab bench to market place,” Samulski said. ”There are a lot of technical breakthroughs that never see the light of day. Having someone like Joe with the ability to see the commercial pathway and to articulate that commercial pathway [is important] because you have to convince others to give you money for the pursuits.
“Joe is a spectacular salesperson because he believes in the technology. It isn’t a contrived sales pitch. It is a fervent belief.”