Get To Know: James Keszenheimer

As an entrepreneur, James Keszenheimer, Ph.D., has developed multiple companies and successfully taken products to market. As a past instructor in the University of Akron Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department, he taught students about product design and development. He brings that cumulative experience to his role at NEOMED, where he is faculty lead for the Innovation Track of the master’s degree program in Basic and Translational Biomedicine.

“My background is in lasers and optics,” Dr. Keszenheimer explained. “I became very interested in medical applications of those technologies at a young age. During my career, I have looked for opportunities to work with clinicians and develop products that would be useful for health care.”

Dr. Keszenheimer developed a curriculum for the BME program that included information students would need to take products to market – things like FDA design and regulatory processes, audits and ISO certification.

“That part of the curriculum was very new. None of the other faculty at that time had been in industry or had practical experience in those areas,” Dr. Keszenheimer said.

When the opportunity to head up the new biomedical innovation program at NEOMED arose, Dr. Keszenheimer jumped at the chance.

“I thought that it was a great opportunity for me to transition into more clinical exposure, get closer to the surgeons and the students, and make a greater impact on health care,” he said. “I'm very excited by the opportunity to develop a curriculum from the ground up based around bio-innovation.”

Bitten by the start-up bug

Dr. Keszenheimer has always seen things a little differently.

“I remember when I was around 12 years old, I wanted to be a doctor. But I wanted to go to school and learn physics first,” he said. Why physics first? “Because it was the hardest thing I knew. And I wanted to know as much as I could about it to prepare me. I really wanted to create an artificial eye. Those were my kid dreams.”

While working toward his undergraduate degree at John Carroll University, Dr. Keszenheimer was approached by one of his professors, who facilitated an opportunity to work on a project creating a fiber optic guitar to reduce shock risk.

“They already had some preconceived notions of what it should look like. They just needed somebody to build it,” Dr. Keszenheimer recalled. As he began working on a prototype, he realized fiber optic strings on a guitar were not a good idea. “Guitar strings need to be under tension to generate the correct sounds, but this is not a good thing to do with fragile glass or plastic optical fibers.”

He found a solution to the problem and was hired by the company who funded the project to continue development.

“I worked on that for a while and then came back to school and finished my degree,” he said. While it was practical work experience and a paying gig, the real impact was that it was Dr. Keszenheimer’s first foray into entrepreneurship.

“I was bitten by the startup bug from that experience. It was a really fun experience,” he recalled.

He started his first company in Boston, working with surgeons at Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School, in the early days of Lasik surgery. “That's when I found applications for lasers and health care,” he said. He also got a little closer to a childhood dream: “There was one individual there who was working on an artificial eye.”

Dr. Keszenheimer and his partners sold the company to a larger laser company in California. He took the opportunity to start a new company in Silicon Valley - “before the telecom bubble burst,” he noted. “There was a lot of money invested, over $100 million, and it was like an overnight ramp up, from ground zero to 5 buildings and 100 employees.”

Two states and a few start-ups later, Dr. Keszenheimer decided to return to Ohio to, as he said, “help the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

The COVID pandemic changed things, including Dr. Keszenheimer’s plans to add clinical needs assessments to the Akron BME program. “I wanted them going into hospitals and doing the clinical shadowing so that students can really see where the needs are,” he said.  “When you talk to clinicians, patients, caregivers, you develop a more well-rounded situational awareness. And when you're an engineer, you're focused on designing and you're not looking at all those things.”

Those experiences are built into the new NEOMED program.

Dr. Keszenheimer is combining his eight years of experience teaching biomedical engineering design with a bio-design process developed at Stanford University to create a new curriculum for NEOMED’s biomedical innovation program.

As he envisions it, the program is well-suited as continuing education for engineers with an interest in health care and innovation, as well as pre-med and medical students who are in a gap year looking to differentiate themselves from other doctors upon graduation. “Having a master’s degree in innovation will help them develop a different mindset than they're taught in other programs,” he noted.

In addition to curriculum development and teaching, Dr. Keszenheimer is helping to develop a Medical Design Innovation Center in the space previously occupied by Café Clark in the south corridor. He became noticeably animated while talking about the developing space.

“It's going to be a place to work on new ideas and brainstorm with colleagues. You'll see whiteboards, table monitors and places where students can meet in groups. They can meet as teams in different areas to work on presentations, their designs, etc. There's a conference room here where they’ll learn how to give business pitches, especially, in preparation for the Bench-to-Bedside competition. But also if they are going to pitch investors,” he said.

The space is also a work area with benches, 3D printers, hand tools and traditional machine shop equipment that will allow for rapid design, testing and development of medical device prototypes.

Something New Every Day

When he’s not starting up companies or teaching others how to develop and market biomedical products, Dr. Keszenheimer likes to challenge himself in a different way: by cooking.

“I like cooking. I enjoy the creative process of it,” he said. “It's like the guy that goes knocking on the door and cooks whatever is in the fridge. I do that. I just like to go through and find different combinations and sometimes I get a little crazy.”

Another challenge in his spare time: reading textbooks from his students’ other coursework. “I just want to immerse myself more in the environment that my students are in. I think it's very helpful to provide a more rounded curriculum,” he said.

“I mean, I'm learning something new every day. Right?”

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