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Tell Me More: A Conversation with Your I-Corps Team, Featuring Nathaniel Hafer

Q&A with Nate Hafer, Director of Operations, UMass Center for Clinical & Translational Science, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester; Assistant Professor in the Program in Molecular Medicine, UMass Medical School

What’s your job?

My job covers three key areas. First, I’m the head of operations for the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science. That’s kind of a mouthful. It’s one of about 60 centers around the country funded by the National Institutes of Health through the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA). These are large awards designed to help speed the taking of bench discoveries into the clinic and then out to the world, whether as devices or therapies. In this role I do a little bit of manythings, I’m a connector; I answer questions about the process. I’m like the concierge in the lobby.

The second thing I do is lead educational programs. Over the past several years I’ve gotten involved in entrepreneurial education and I-Corps education. I connected with John Blaho and his team at CUNY in 2016, and they have been so generous ever since about sharing materials and connections—I’ve been a happy member of the group since.

As our institution is a member of the New York City I-Corps hub, I’ve taught the I-Corps program. Here at UMass, we are increasingly folding this kind of education into other grants and programs. We’ve been involved in several initiatives where I-Corps has been at the center of training and education. In the past year, based on the I-Corps work, I was asked to lead a pathway for the medical students—kind of like a minor, an area of focus—for entrepreneurship in biomedical design and innovation. In that effort, I have a cohort of medical students to whom I’m teaching I-Corps principles, connecting them to faculty projects. The idea is that they get familiar with the I-Corps approach in case they want to meld these areas and become a physician-entrepreneur.

The third piece is that I serve as one of the directors of a medical device and biomedical development incubator; it’s a joint effort with UMass Lowell and the UMass ChanMedical School here in Worcester. We’ve worked for the past dozen years to help entrepreneurs move products from design to preclinical work, to clinical trial, to market.

All this work is related—education, commercialization, resources, and the support needed to move things forward. And it requires teamwork. No one person has the expertise to do this by themselves.

What do you think is the biggest surprise about I-Corps for participants?

I always emphasize that I-Corps, or getting into business more broadly, doesn’t have to be some totally new thing that’s scary or different. It’s just a matter of using the principles of scientific method to explore a new area that is unknown—to you or to the world in general. Turning to things that are familiar to the students puts them at ease and shows them they can do this. People often say, “I don’t know how to do it, I don’t know how to get started.” I-Corps is such a useful tool for showing people how to evaluate an idea, and it’s not unfamiliar because it uses the scientific method and testing hypotheses. I think the hurdle to get over is to think that this is so foreign that you can’t learn how to get started.

Given how the pandemic has heightened awareness of public health issues, is this a particularly exciting time for biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship?

The intersection of biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship has always been an interest of mine. Bringing in I-Corps has been a fun way to introduce people to the entrepreneurship process and show them they can do it, as a scientist or an engineer.

There’s been a COVID effect, to be sure. If you talk to people just starting their careers in health sciences, they universally talk about how COVID has impacted and inspired them. There’s a large cohort of people going into these fields now because they were motivated by what we have all experienced over the past three years. Even for people not at the beginning of their careers, there’s still an impact. With the proliferation of home testing and conversations about what testing is, what vaccines are, and what theycan do—all of this has become an everyday conversation in every corner, and that has broad impact.

Our team worked on the NIH’s RADx (Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics) initiative to speed innovation and increase capacity for COVID testing. The RADx program is 15-year-old. People at the NIH will tell you there had been a real lack of interest in the program. COVID flipped all of that on its head. Now we rely on rapid testing at home, and people are thinking more broadly about healthcare and how it is delivered. Do youhave to go to the doctor’s office and pharmacy, or can we do that differently?

Can you share a challenge in the biomedical space for which you are hoping to see a solution in the near term?

There are many! But two are near and dear to my heart.

One is to explore ways to improve navigation of the healthcare system. I’ve seen this acutely in my own family. It can be really complicated to receive care, and then once you leave a hospital or doctor’s office, it can be challenging to follow through. What are you supposed to do? Where are you supposed to go? There are so many communications issues that come from meeting with a doctor and not really understanding what’s being thrown at you. Resources that can help individuals to better understand and navigate their care are ripe for development and improvement.

Also, we need to move the healthcare experience into the modern world. So much of what we do when we shop is online—getting groceries, buying clothes or shoes—butwe still have a healthcare system that’s dependent on physically going to a provider or a pharmacy, and there are all kinds of barriers and issues that get in the way of doing that which can prevent individuals from getting the care they need.

I’m involved with a project that’s trying address the challenges of testing and getting COVID drugs like Paxlovid to people with a more modern approach. For example, if someone reports symptoms, they can get a test kit mailed to them; if they are positive, a telehealth visit could green light a shipment of drugs, so the individual never needs to leave home. There are many barriers to implementing this widely, but the pandemic itself overturned many of those barriers—it showed you could take a different approach. Financial pressures have also moved things forward and encouraged more creative thinking.

At UMass, we have a hospital-at-home program: individuals are considered inpatient and fitted with the technologies they need for care; they have a home care person who comes to see them, and they do telehealth, but they are at home. It’s exciting that people are thinking creatively and exploring how we can do things differently.

What’s a recent accomplishment of your own that you can share?

As part of our RADx work, we provided data for a large study in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and NIH looking at over the counter COVID tests and how they perform in symptomatic and asymptomatic people. The FDA changed the labelling on at home tests based in part on our findings. It was great to see the national impact of our research.

What are you reading—or hoping to read, soon?

I generally like to read nonfiction more than fiction. Next up is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, it’s a novel but it’s historical fiction about the Civil War. I also like podcasts; I subscribe to The Athletic, so I listen to their different podcasts about sports.

What do you do for fun?

I spend time with my family—I have two boys, ages 9 and 11. They are very active and it’s always fun to for us to spend time together, outside. I’m also a runner and I’m training for a half-marathon in Providence, RI in May.


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