Travis Block co-founded the adaptive cycling technology company MonoMano as an undergrad and the non-profit San Antonio Science while doing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the UT Health San Antonio. He is now Senior Scientists at StemBioSys, Inc. We asked Travis why and how he founded his organizations and why he moved away from the bench.
While you were an undergrad at the University of Rochester, you co-founded the company MonoMano – how did that happen?
MonoMano was founded by me and four other students at the University of Rochester. It started as a senior design project. I was studying biomedical engineering and all the engineering students do a design course where you work on an engineering problem with a group in the community. You try to come up with a solution for the problem they present to you.
We were working with an adaptive recreational group that does recreational therapy. They come up for ways for people with disabilities to get active. It is way more common for people to have lower limb disabilities than upper limb disabilities – something like 10:1 – so there wasn’t much for people with upper limb disabilities. We wanted to make it easier for people with upper limb weakness to ride a bike. There were some specialized bikes on the market but they cost the same as a car, so we came up with a device that you could put on a Walmart bike to cut the cost by 95 percent.
We weren’t really planning on selling it but we wanted to get feedback on it for the project so we took it to an adaptive sports expo and a gentleman who had experienced a stroke came up to us on a walker and asked to try it out. His left leg was so weak that we had to strap his foot to the pedal and then he started zipping around on our prototype. He came back and he was so excited that he was able to turn right as easily as he could turn left – for people with hemiparesis, it can be easier to do a 270 degree turn one way than a 90 degree turn the way you want to go. He asked to buy the bike. We said, “We can’t sell it to you in good conscience because it’s about to fall apart so we’ll make you another one.”
Then we realized that there were a whole lot of people that this could help – over five million people in the U.S. are living with hemiparesis due to stroke. Originally we wanted to give our tech away to a bigger cycling company but no one would promise to manufacture it. So we got the university to release the rights to us and went into start-up competitions to raise the capital and crowd sourced the rest. That’s how we got our start-up funds. We contracted with a company in China to manufacture the bikes and started selling them.
What was your role at MonoMano?
I was Chief Operating Officer but we were all sort of jack-of-all-trades because none of us knew what we were doing. It was a phenomenal learning experience because we had to learn about every aspect of business and design and marketing and I was so used to being an engineer at school and thinking about functionality not about making something beautiful. We learned quickly that we did not want to be the smartest people in the room so we put together a great board of people who had been very successful in industry and academia and had a lot of experience in manufacturing and design. They gave us tips along the way. We got really good at asking for help.
Are you still involved?
I have a less active role now – I still own a small part of the company.
Is the company still active?
While you were a grad student at UT Health San Antonio you co-founded San Antonio Science. What does San Antonio Science do?
Our mission is to promote awareness, understanding and enthusiasm for science. One day, we hope science will be central to San Antonio’s identity, like Boston, San Diego, and the Bay Area.
Why were you motivated to start San Antonio Science?
Money for science is drying up and if we don’t make people understand science and get what we are doing and why it’s important, funding will dry up even more. It’s critical for the survival of science that we communicate well.
I started getting active in science outreach events at the UT Health San Antonio but I became frustrated that the same people were showing up to all our events – people who were already on the email list, so we weren’t getting to other people. We wanted to put together an event that was bigger and would touch a new audience. Milos Marinkovic, another grad student and friend, and I came up with Science Fiesta. We were originally organizing it as a Graduate Student Association event but became too big for what they do so we founded San Antonio Science and filed 501(c)3paperwork to make it a non-profit organization so we could fundraise.
As we were fundraising, we realized we weren’t selling people on one event. We live in a community with lots of great science stories that can help people understand why they should be excited by science in their community. We had success with the first Science Fiesta so we expanded our board and brought in a lot of people that know a whole lot more than us who can help guide the organization and help us be successful.
What is happening in the San Antonio life science scene?
The San Antonio life science scene is really growing but should be growing a whole lot more. It is something we can be proud of but I feel is also underperforming. We have the San Antonio Emerging Venture pipeline at the Texas Technology Development Center where biotech companies have received funding from a life science incubator and some look like they are going to do great. We have a lot of promising stuff in aging, regenerative medicine, trauma care and wound care. In academia we do well in diabetes as well. That community has grown quite a bit in the last four years.
We have resources here that other, bigger life science cities would love to have, like the Texas Biomedical Research Institute which recently secured grants for over US$20 million and has the largest captive primate colony in the world. It’s an incredible resource for core facilities and animal work that very few places can compete with. We have the Southwest Research Institute – a non-profit research foundation that has everything from life sciences to being the home base for NASA’s Lucy mission to Jupiter. We have Texas Biomed where the Hepatitis B vaccine was developed and multiple public and private universities and San Antonio Army Medical Center and the Army Institute for Surgical Research – huge military medical research bases with a ton of research scientists on staff. They hire a ton of local postdocs and funnel Department of Defense funding into the life sciences. They have large animal models there and are the premier burn hospital in the world. We have phenomenal resources for advancing life sciences from preclinical to clinical.
I’m really happy with the life sciences scene here but I think our city has the potential to grow and compete with Boston, San Diego and San Francisco.
After you did a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and worked as a postdoc, you are now Senior Scientist at StemBioSys – why did you move away from academia?
I would have been happy doing a lot of things but from my experience with MonoMano, I had gotten the bug of entrepreneurship and turning ideas into products.
Also I think that for a lot of young scientists, academia is getting a little less appealing. From what I understand it used to be that you were trading some of the money for more freedom to study what you want and more job security but now it seems that it’s tougher to get grants so academia has become a very stressful job and you don’t have as much freedom because you are bound by grants and it’s easier to get grants on stuff you’ve already studied.
How did you get your job at StemBioSys?
My graduate thesis project turned into a patent application and I thought it had the potential to go onto the clinic. So I had been considering trying to license the patent from the university when I was approached by StemBioSys, a regenerative medicine company whose tech I had been using during my project. They said they were thinking of licensing out my tech and asked if I would come on board to do R&D with them.
What do you do as Senior Scientist?
I am the only Senior Scientist so I am sort of the director of all things science. My primary responsibility is to direct R&D. We obviously want to take a small company and make it a big company, but one of the fun things about being a small company is that you can dabble in lots of different things. The other day they were working on a new marketing campaign and pulled me into the meeting to ask my opinion on the wording.
I spend most of my time writing grants or designing experiments. There’s some long-term thinking about what theoretically should work for more down line products, but also what data do I need to get in order to get a product to market this year. It’s fun to have that mix. I spend about 20 percent of my time doing experiments. Most benchwork is done by a team of researchers.
What are your plans for the future?
It is San Antonio Science’s first year anniversary. We have put together a board that we feel really good about. We have been spending a lot of time trying to educate local politicians about what we are doing so they can be evangelists for us. We are slowly expanding our repertoire of events. It’s a lot to manage as a volunteer so we are about to bring on our first full-time employee.
With StemBioSys, it’s a very exciting time for the company. We’ll have three to four new products out this year – we currently have one. We have a partnership and grant with BioBridge Global, the parent company for the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, the Army Surgical Center and Rooster Bio. This is a great example of how we can take advantages of the resources in San Antonio. We’re going to use that grant to develop a couple of new products. We’re closing Series B funding. We’re in a great place.
This article was originally posted on the Life Science Network and was written by Leah Cannon, a Career Advisory Council member at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the content editor for Life Science Network.