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“Cowboys” Help Guide the Path to I-Corps Success

Dr. Mohammad Mir is a methodical scientist, but he’s discovered how useful a “cowboy” archetype can be—in this case, describing medical professionals who are eager to try new technologies.

Dr. Mir, who completed his PhD in biomedical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in August 2023, runs BullsEYE Biodevices with Stevens assistant professor Dr. Jinho Kim. Dr. Kim’s research was the foundation for BullsEYE’s technology—which uses a noninvasive robotic device to assess tissue stiffness as a possible indicator of numerous diseases and disorders.

The “cowboy” theory helped the BullsEYE team to evolve their concept. “During our national I-Corps experience, a Stevens professor, Jonathan Gabel, gave us a brilliant insight,” said Dr. Mir. “He told us that we must find the “cowboys” in the hospital—evangelist surgeons that want to test and try out new technologies and are eager to use them, regardless of cost, to try to improve patient outcomes. They are early adopters who will advocate for a device, talk to their peers about it, and enhance its reputation. That epiphany was a key part of our national I-Corps experience.”

His path from student to lab to national I-Corps and beyond has been rapid. Born and raised in a small city in the south of Iran, Dr. Mir came to the US in 2018 to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering at Stevens, having received his BS in chemical engineering and Master’s in polymer science and engineering in Iran.

He joined the Translational Lung Bioengineering Laboratory run by Dr. Kim, researching bioengineering devices and methods meant to diagnose and treat lung disorders and disease. Dr. Kim’s lab was exploring lung diseases and the injuries that can happen to the lung when a person is on a ventilator. In early 2022, Dr. Kim received an NSF CAREER Award to support his study of the correlation between tissue injury and the how it impacts the structure and mechanics of lung tissue. Dr. Kim had proposed using a pressure-based, non-invasive tissue palpation device invented by the lab.

That evolved into what is now BullsEYE’s core technology—measuring the biometric mechanical properties of lung tissue. “Dr. Kim found that injured tissue has varying degrees of stiffness that can serve as a diagnostic tool for measuring injuries and their causes,” explained Dr. Mir. “We wanted our device to measure lung tissue in different situations. We further improved the design and functionality of this palpation device and named it ‘BullsEYE Robotic Finger,’ with the intent of using it to detect diseased tissues, including tumorous and fibrotic tissues.

Their efforts were further boosted when Dr. Kim’s lab received an innovation grant from the NJ Health Foundation, which supports research projects in New Jersey academic and medical institutions.

“We didn’t even know that I-Corps existed,” said Dr. Mir. “Scott Alcazar, director of venture commercialization at the NJ Health Foundation, suggested that we participate in the next regional opportunity available.” Fortunately, the Stevens Institute of Technology is one of the founding institutions of the New York NSF I-Corps Hub.

Regional I-Corps upended several assumptions for Dr. Mir and his team. “We assumed that every hospital offering robotic surgery would want our device,” he said. “By our initial interviews, we realized we were wrong. We underwent a quick shift, finding that thoracic surgeons and gastrointestinal (GI) surgeons would be the most relevant targets for us.”

The BullsEYE team interviewed 24 people in their regional course —nearly half of whom were surgeons. “From regional I-Corps, we confirmed that using our device to detect tumors would also be a great application,” added Dr. Mir. “A few months later, when we moved on to national I-Corps, the insights continued—we realized our technology could also be used for scars or fibrotic tissue in different organs.”

Their national I-Corps experience introduced the perspectives of a much larger universe of customer discovery. In total, they conducted 115 interviews, including 32 thoracic and GI surgeons, industry leaders who shared insights about the ecosystem of the technology, distributors, and suppliers.

Another big takeaway from customer discovery was that hospitals were interested in disposable devices. “Our device is a robotic finger; it uses controllers and a computer, but the sensing part that would detect the tumor or fibrosis can be disposable,” said Dr. Mir. “It’s not unlike a razor blade, where the holder is retained, but the razors are disposable. Knowing that can make our product more appealing to our key customers.”

Looking back on the impact of the I-Corps experience, Dr. Mir said, “In academia, we read papers and we find challenges, and we try to solve them. We’re in our comfort zone and biased to our own solutions. When we go outside academia, our perspective undergoes a big change. I realized that I needed to broaden my knowledge not only about the tech, but also about the commercialization and business side.”

“You must get out of your comfort zone and find out whether the problem you think of really does exist in the real world,” he added. “If the people who might use your tech don’t need it, what’s the point?”

Dr. Mir hopes that BullsEYE will officially launch soon; the team will be applying for an SBIR grant later this fall. “We are also continuing to work with the NJ Health Foundation and are exploring the FDA regulations and other parameters involved in bringing our device to market,” he said. “By doing I-Corps, we now have so many connections to surgeons that want to work with us, and that should help us on the pathway to FDA approval.”


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