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Stanford Report, April 23, 2003

Biodesign series features innovations from Perkins


Venture capitalists, engineers, surgery residents and others gathered at the Stanford Barn recently for wine, cheese and perspective from Rodney Perkins, MD, founder of a string of successful biotech companies.

Perkins spoke as the fourth presenter in a series of seven lectures, "From the Innovator’s Workbench," sponsored by the Stanford Biodesign Innovation Program.

Physician, inventor and adjunct faculty member Rodney Perkins shared his professional experiences during a lecture and Q-and-A session focused on discovery and innovation last week at the Stanford Barn. Photo: Courtesy of Teresa Robinson

At each event, a speaker who has developed a medical device talks about the experience — "what the challenges are, when they almost failed — to give students a flavor of what it’s like," said Paul Yock, MD, co-director of the biodesign program and the Martha Meier Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine and, by courtesy, of mechanical engineering .

In his talk, Perkins described his teenage days as the assistant produce manager at a grocery story in Indiana. Local housewives showed up Saturday afternoons when the week-old produce had to be sold cheap or thrown out. That real-world experience with negotiation prepared him for dealing with venture capitalists, he joked.

Perkins made his first medical invention in med school: an experimental device that oxygenated blood during surgery. It worked, but he never commercialized it. "It was just a project that solved a need," he said. He did, however, win a research prize for the design.

As an intern in Dallas, Perkins thought of developing an inflatable splint that ambulance workers could use on broken bones. He found a plastic fabricator in the Yellow Pages, described the idea to him and then set the project aside. A few years later, he saw a patient come into the emergency room with a balloon on his leg — the new air splint, developed by the Dallas man Perkins had initially called for help. He learned then to be careful whenever he spoke with others about his ideas.

Later, Perkins was captivated by ear microsurgery. He founded the California Ear Institute at Stanford, which does research and treatment of hearing and balance disorders, and continued to practice medicine while launching several companies.

Perkins’ best-known company, Collagen Corp., initially set out to develop a synthetic eardrum from collagen. One of his neighbors, an early venture capitalist, agreed at a neighborhood party to talk seriously about funding.

"I knew nothing about preferred shares or anything," Perkins said, so he hired a lawyer to do the negotiations. The market turned out to be limited, so the company focused on burn dressings, developing injectable collagen used in plastic surgery today.

In the early days of that company’s life, Perkins served as CEO.

"I like the early stages of a company; I like putting together the team," he told the audience. "I really tend not to like looking at the balance sheets and the business end of it."

Perkins finds inspiration from his ideas through his daily work. "Ideas are all around in the operating room," he said. "If you just have your radar set, you see someone doing something a little awkwardly."

The Q-and-A session following Perkins’ talk revealed the diversity of the audience. Christine Chao, MD, a general surgery intern who showed up still wearing her scrubs, said she was impressed that Perkins found the time to think up his earliest inventions while he was an intern.

"You barely have enough time to do your job as it is and have a life outside of medicine," she said.

Engineer George Khait, on the other hand, came to the lecture looking for input on an improved hospital bed he is developing. He has a prototype, he said, and is searching for advice and funding to bring the product to market.

Future speakers will include Mir Imran, who has started cardiovascular research companies (April 28); Michael Lesh, MD, a physician at UC-San Francisco, who works with cardiac arrhythmias (May 12); and Bill New, MD, PhD, who has a company that makes a device to test hearing in newborns, (May 27).

The series is open to the public and registration is required. Tickets are $45 but the fee is waived for Stanford students and faculty. To learn more, visit or call Teresa Robinson at 736-1159.

Ongoing biodesign series explores innovation (2/19/03)

Stanford Biodesign Innovation Program