Forging a field of innovation: Biomedical Engineering celebrates its 50th year

October 26, 2022 — The Twin Cities are today a central hub of groundbreaking medical device innovations and hot health tech companies, contributing to a healthcare industry that accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. GDP. 

But none of this could have happened without the faculty and alumni trailblazers whose ingenuity helped define an emerging field, and 50 years ago established a pioneering program at the University of Minnesota to train future generations — the PhD program in Biomedical Engineering.

Since then, our PhD program blossomed into a full-fledged Department of Biomedical Engineering, which became a biomedical juggernaut that’s making breakthroughs, launching startups, and graduating generations of innovators. 

Forging a new field of innovation

Exploring the roots of our biomedical engineering PhD program is to see the beginnings of the field of biomedical engineering. In the 1950s, UMN electrical engineering alumnus and Medtronic founder Earl E. Bakken connected with UMN surgery professor C. Walton Lillihei, MD, PhD, to develop the first battery-operated, wearable pacemaker. 

“That was an important step in bringing electrical engineering into medicine,” says Ken Keller, PhD, former president of the University of Minnesota and professor emeritus of chemical engineering. “The collaboration highlighted the potential of bridging those disciplines.” 

While Bakken was building his company — Minneapolis-based global health tech giant Medtronic — a young UMN cardiac surgeon named Eugene Bernstein, MD, PhD, was on the path to developing an artificial heart. In the early 1960s, Bernstein connected with UMN mechanical engineering professor Perry Blackshear, PhD, and, later, Keller. 

“Blackshear pushed hard on the idea that a true collaboration of equals would require that the three of us communicate with each other to define the fundamental problems rather than operating independently or charging one with defining the problem and the others as ‘merely’ seeking the solution,” recalls Keller.

The collaboration of Keller, Blackshear, and Bernstein helped pave the way for artificial hearts and other artificial internal organs. It also helped to grow the emerging field of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and in the Twin Cities more broadly.

The three researchers were pivotal in launching the University's PhD program in biomedical engineering in 1972. The graduate program grew in stature, and an MS program was established in 1984.

Deepening a culture of collaboration

Bob Tranquillo, PhD, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in Biomedical Engineering, says this type of collaboration between a university’s medical and engineering schools doesn’t happen everywhere. “The Midwest culture of people being willing to talk in a straightforward way has led to a lot of these interactions,” he says. 

To further cement this culture of collaboration, the University established the Biomedical Engineering Institute (BMEI), now known as the Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM). IEM has long strengthened collaborations between UMN medical and engineering faculty and the local industry to turn science and engineering into medical practice, giving our department unique advantages that are fueling new innovations.

Paul Iaizzo, PhD, a graduate faculty member with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, associate director of IEM, and Medtronic Professor for Engineering, cites one example, saying:

“We poll our clinicians to see if they have needs in their clinical areas that they need help with. Clinicians know what their needs are and maybe also the solutions, but they have no time to innovate.” 

Launching a new academic department

In 2000, Professor Bob Tranquillo was charged by the College of Science & Engineering with launching its new Department of Biomedical Engineering as its inaugural head. The department oversaw the graduate programs and launched an undergraduate program. An endowment for graduate student fellowships was established, and the department received major gifts from Medtronic, Boston Scientific, and Abbott. 

Today, that department has grown to over 20 faculty members, with faculty helping to form 10 start-up companies, filing for 506 patents, and securing 134 patents. Research interests have expanded, exploring everything from the molecular and cellular level all the way up to tissues and organs. And the department has become a leader in cardiovascular, neural, and cancer bioengineering. 

Fueling Medical Alley

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the profound impact of the Department of Biomedical Engineering than the growth of the medical device industry in the Twin Cities — sparked, powered, and propelled by its faculty, students, alumni, research, and innovations.

“Our connection to the biomedical industry is particularly, if not uniquely strong, because of the size of the Twin Cities community — large enough to be major players on the national and international scene, but small enough to maintain personal connections and necessary relationships between the biomedical community and the University,” says Keller. “We have trained leaders at Medtronic, Boston Scientific, St. Jude [now Abbott], and dozens of startups. They have reciprocated by supporting our efforts financially and advocating for us.”

Hosting some of the biggest names in global biomedical technology, the local biomedical sector, affectionately known as “Medical Alley,” is home to more than 1,000 healthcare companies, employing more than 500,000 Minnesotans and millions more worldwide. The Smithsonian recognized Medical Alley as among only six "Great Places of Invention” in the U.S., and the only one for healthcare. 

3D map showing the Dept. of Biomedical Engineering's proximity to the Institute for Engineering in Medicine, UMN health sciences and 1,000+ local healthcare companies
The University of Minnesota is in the heart of one of the world’s largest medical device clusters and an emerging biotechnology sector. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is a dynamic hub for medical devices, biotechnology, and start-ups, and people around the world — have benefited from the pioneering collaborations of BME’s faculty, alumni, and students. 

Interwoven with industry

Cross-fertilization between industry and the University can be seen in direct research collaborations such as The Visible Heart® Lab, created with Medtronic to perform translational systems physiology research. Local companies not only contribute funding but time and effort, taking a hands-on role in educating students by serving as speakers and instructors. They also consistently hire graduates.

“The vast majority of undergraduates who join a company after graduation do so at medical device and technology companies in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” says Professor Tranquillo. “Those companies are crucial to our success.” 

Maximillian Fiore, a seasoned biomedical industry executive and former BME Industry Advisory Board member, says the University has been very supportive of creating and spinning off start-ups.

“The University was focused on this idea of training people to go out there and create start-ups which is in line with what we (in industry) were trying to get them to do in terms of creating a product. Students seemed pleased to get into hands-on project development work,” says Fiore, who also serves on the board of Minnesota health tech company SOLTEC Health: “At the end of the day, the University created a very strong relationship with industry, and the fruits of that relationship are continuing to blossom.”

Making an impact

UMN alumna Carol Malnati, a retired vice president of research & development at Medtronic, underscores the impact of the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s graduates, saying:

“The students that graduate from the Biomedical Engineering programs at the University of Minnesota go on to be the scientists and engineers innovating for the future of humanity, improving lives worldwide and championing disruptive innovation to solve the world's biggest challenges.”

With the outsized achievement of the department’s faculty, alumni, and students, the future looks bright. “All in all,” says Keller. “There is good reason to expect the next 50 years to continue the success of the first 50 years.”