Alumnus balances life in academia with the world of startups
Before even deciding to pursue a master’s degree, MechSE alumnus Ken Gall knew he wanted to work on technology and making new technologies. This dream pushed him to pursue an uncommon (at the time) career combination – academia and startups.
Gall earned his BSME (1995), MSME (1996), and PhD (1998) from Illinois and continued to do postdoc work at Sandia National Labs. He returned to academia as an assistant professor at University of Colorado and then spent ten years as a professor at Georgia Tech. Now Gall holds positions as Chair of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) as well as a professor of MEMS and Orthopaedic Surgery at Duke University.
After about five years at the University of Colorado, Gall founded his first startup – Medshape. The company applied shape-memory alloys – alloys that will return to their original shape after deformation – to create an implant called the DynaNail that would decrease the amount of failures in ankle fusion surgery. After the FDA cleared the device for sale in the U.S. in 2011, there have only been 30 unsuccessful surgeries for 1,500 implants compared to a 50% failure rate typically seen in this surgery. Now Medshape also works with technologies Morphix and Eclipse, which are suture and soft tissue anchors respectively.
While at Georgia Tech Gall took on another challenge, this time for those requiring spinal fusion. Disks in the spine can degenerate to the point that an implant is necessary. Typically, the solution utilizes a metal cage as an implant, but Gall wished to make one out of polymer. The startup, Vertera, worked on surface porosity modification to create a polymer implant that would adhere to bone as strongly as titanium. This implant – named Cohere – launched in 2017 and it allows for continued use of CTs and MRIs to check for successful fusion, unlike its metal competitor. Vertera was purchased by NuVasive in September of 2017.
Gall’s current startup is Restor3d, a company that specializes in 3D-printed implants. Most current implants are designed to stock sizes, making perfect fits rare for patients. With a scan from a doctor, Restor3d can provide a 3D-printed and completely specialized implant to a patient in about a week. The manufacturing method allows for versatility in the mechanical properties of the implant, allowing the designer to vary characteristics such as stiffness.
Over the years, there have been an abundance of obstacles for Gall in establishing his startups. Although he has felt that academia and startups balance each other nicely, getting his companies off the ground has offered numerous challenges. He has gone through failed financing pitches with investors, supplier errors, changes in management, and much more, but his technologies have succeeded nonetheless.
“I was always motivated to continue in the face of challenges because I believed our technology was better and ultimately this would be proven in the marketplace,” Gall said.
That mindset has allowed Gall’s life-enhancing products to get on the market and allowed him to achieve his goal of creating new technologies.