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Donoghue to launch Swiss neuroengineering center

Newly created Wyss Center aims to spur innovative projects, collaboration to meet real-world needs

Universities experience a constant turnover of faculty members and students, so ideas are frequently lost, said John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience and director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science. Students become experts in certain skills and techniques, but then they move on, and many of their ideas either stay within the confines of academia or get lost as they transition to new places, he added.

The new Geneva, Switzerland-based Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-Engineering — which Donoghue will take a year-long sabbatical beginning this January to launch — aims to alleviate this problem. The center will tackle “high-risk, high-reward” ideas and seek to release them as real-world products, Donoghue said.


A repurposing of space

In 2012, the European pharmaceutical company Merck Serono moved its headquarters from Geneva to Darmstadt, Germany, leaving its nearly 40,000-square-meter building empty. Patrick Aebischer, former associate professor of medical sciences and current president of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, had an idea for a different use of the newly vacant building — a biotechnical center, Donoghue said.

Following the news of Merck Serono’s move, a group of universities and philanthopists formed Campus Biotech. According to its website, the organization’s mission is to ensure that the empty building could “be utilized as a focal point for scientists and entrepreneurs in the life sciences sector, rather than be purchased for property development.”

Merck Serono announced in May 2013 that Campus Biotech had successfully acquired the space, which would house  faculty members  from the Swiss universities, the Human Brain Project and the Wyss Center.

Still in need of someone to launch the center, Aebischer turned to Donoghue for suggestions, Donoghue said. Immediately drawn to the idea, Donoghue flew to Switzerland, where the center’s board asked Donoghue if he would want to lead the center himself — an offer he accepted.


Permanent experts 

As the new center’s director, Donoghue will be responsible for forming a plan to get the center off the ground, he said.

“It’s not like he’s walking into a well-oiled machine,” said Barry Connors, professor of neuroscience and chair of the department. “There is no machine.”

Donoghue “has to create the vision, he has to create the plan, he has to hire the people, he has to organize them. That’ll fill a year right there,” Connors added.

Donoghue was a smart choice for the job, said Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Jack Elias, since he is a “proven high-level program builder.” For example, Donoghue founded Brown’s Department of Neuroscience in 1991 and served as its chair until 2006.

Donoghue’s vision is to fill the Wyss Center with permanently stationed experts and the tools necessary to launch promising neuro- and bio-technical ideas, he said. These experts will be organized into seven different platforms, tackling various areas of product design and release, including safety testing and business.

The center will act as an “accelerator” and provide people in academia with the resources they need to turn their ideas into products capable of helping real people, Donoghue said. Scientists often develop inventions that never turn into functional products, he added.

The center will choose to develop ideas based on their potential to meet “unmet need,” Donoghue said. The center’s funding is specifically intended to support risky ideas that, if successful, could do immense good for others.

This is a “unique” opportunity for Donoghue, Connors said, noting that many people never get the chance to act on their ideas. As the director of the new center, Donoghue will be the biggest voice in determining its direction, he said.

But the plan is still under works, Donoghue said, adding that in the next few months, he will rely on others to critique his vision. Hiring experts and developing the center’s platforms will be a long process, Donoghue said, adding that while he hopes to launch the center during the year he is in Switzerland, it will likely take 10 years for the center to be “fully rolling.”


The ‘essence’ of neuroscience 

The Wyss Center exemplifies a trend toward “team science,” Elias said. In recent years, scientists have fully realized the power of cooperation, recognizing that technological progress benefits from communication and combining “the power of all the tools we have,”  he added.

Collaboration, which is the “very essence” of neuroscience,  represents nothing new in the field, but the specific groups working together change over time, Connors said.

Neuroengineering has seen particular growth over the past few years, he added. While there have always been many neuroscientists trained in engineering, now many engineers are trained in neuroscience so they can solve problems of the brain with their skill sets, Connors said.

The Wyss Center will seek to replicate the “creative spirit” that is “built into the Brown enterprise,” but on a much “bigger scale,” said David Borton PhD’12, assistant professor of engineering, who recently completed a postdoctoral position at EPFL.

Donoghue said he hopes to bring parts of Brown’s “special identity” overseas, adding that he foresees ample opportunity for collaboration between Brown, EPFL and the University of Geneva.

The creation of the center will link “powerful groups” together, Elias said,  which will lend itself toward new opportunities for students and faculty members from both sides.


‘Big shoes to fill’

Donoghue’s year-long sabbatical in Geneva will leave his positions empty at the University. While away, Donoghue will no longer act as the director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science and will not hold his usual department responsibilities, Connors said.

But Donoghue said he will remain involved in BrainGate research, which he currently leads, during his year away.

Administrators currently in the process of selecting an interim director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science and will announce their decision within the next two weeks, Elias said. After his year-long sabbatical, Donoghue said he plans to resume his roles at Brown.

Donoghue will work with the new director to ensure a smooth transition, he said.

“Any time someone tries to step in, even if temporarily, they are big shoes to fill,” Elias said.

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