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Co-founder of medical technology startup Blackwell: Niko Fotopoulos

By Yael Marans

Among the researchers at Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs this summer were a group of undergraduates — Niko Fotopoulos ’21 and his researchers — who were also the first undergraduate team to ever work at BioLabs. They worked on their start-up, Blackwell, a medical technology company.

The research is focused on creating more stable artificial ligaments to be used for ligament repairs procedures, such as those used in ACL repairs.

The company is named after Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female to earn a medical degree in the United States. Fotopoulos explained that he hopes to honor her as a pioneer for women.

Blackwell’s role as a woman allowed her to disrupt the norms of the medical industry, and Fotopoulos hopes that his company will introduce new ideas to the field of biotechnology and continue Blackwell’s legacy of challenging the status quo.

Fotopoulos created the company during his freshman year at the University with his friends from Biotechnology High School in New Jersey. He explained that Blackwell was founded in December 2017 but was officially incorporated in June 2018. The team consists of him; University of Pennsylvania sophomores Ricky Pati, Adam Konkol, and Dylan Cook; and John Hopkins University sophomore Siddharth Iyer.

Cook explained that the five of them first started working as team for local science fair competitions in high school. They realized that they had a “terrific working dynamic” and decided to continue collaborating into college.

“Putting the entire history of the five of us into perspective, it almost feels like a group project gone out of control,” wrote Cook in a Facebook message.

Each team member has nuanced interests and offers different contributions.

“We all have a fundamental background in science,” Cook said. “But we each have been drawn to different branches of science which lets us have varied perspectives on every design problem.”

Cook, a biology and English concentrator, wrote that he creates lab procedures and writes and designs products.

Iyer studies materials science, while Pati studies life sciences and management and Konkol is a biochemistry major.

Fotopoulos, who is pursuing a concentration in molecular biology and a certificate in entrepreneurship, is interested in the business aspect of the startup.

“Having that amorphous aspect allows us to evaluate different ideas a lot better than if one person was the ‘know-it-all,’” said Fotopoulos. “[With us] all having a little piece in it, we are all just able to generate better solutions.”

Fotopoulos and his team’s summer research was funded by the New Jersey Health Foundation. They received $25,000 in funding. 

“[New Jersey Health Foundation] was an excellent resource for business knowledge and getting us into the Princeton BioLabs,” wrote Konkol in a Facebook message. “It was great to have friendly mentors that we could easily access for questions and planning.”

Cook agreed that their mentors have been helpful thus far.

“There are so many professionals out there who are willing to listen to you and help you so long as you have something to say,” wrote Cook. “Not every connection is a massive success, but those who resonate with you give you the motivation to keep moving forward.”

Fotopoulos’ team has also been supported by several of the entrepreneurship resources on campus, including Tony Williams in the Office of Technology Licensing, who provided valuable insight for running the business.

The research aims to improve ligament repair procedures. Replacing the ligament with an artificial ligament is one of the most common and least invasive techniques used for ligament repairs.

According to Fotopoulos, artificial ligaments create the strongest holds, but because they are foreign material, the body’s autoimmune reactions tend to degrade them, leading to very low success rates for the procedure.

The Blackwell team undertook the challenge of trying to make artificial ligaments more biocompatible. They aimed to devise a way where the same strong artificial ligaments could be used without the body rejecting them.

Fotopoulos’s solution was to create a proprietary protein coating for the artificial ligaments, which creates a barrier and prevents the bodily reactions that would otherwise attack the ligaments and render them ineffective.

The team finished the physical testing of the prototype over the summer and are planning to publish a research paper. It is currently communicating with potential investors to determine its next steps.

Although Fotopoulos and team have now found momentum in the project, they have struggled along the way.

Pati explained that receiving FDA approval was the largest challenge that Blackwell faced.

“We were a group of 19-year-olds, aiming for our device to be approved by a committee of established clinicians, researchers, and engineers,” Pati wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian. 

The team eventually received FDA approval, explained Pati.

Pati noted that his personal challenge in working on the project was “the pace of work.”

“Wanting immediate satisfaction, I was constantly discouraged by the lack thereof,” Pati wrote. “After [realizing] that was the wrong mindset, I was able to appreciate the various intricacies of the research process.”

According to Fotopoulos, however, the biggest challenge was getting their first idea. He explained in an email statement to the 'Prince' that brainstorming took the team a few months of researching which areas of medicine they could impact the most. 

“Many [ideas] were good, but were they rewarding enough for us?” Fotopoulos wrote. “Would they disrupt the industry to the scale we wanted them to and attract the interest of investors the most?” 

He added that several of his own ideas were “shot down” by his team members because his medical device ideas weren't "disruptive enough.” 

“I can see that those ideas would not be able to have the same scope of impact that our current product concepts have,” Fotopoulos wrote. “It was really important that my team gave honest feedback at that stage so we could put our energy toward a more worthy product now.” 

Fotopoulos credits his experiences as a pre-med for a lot of his ideas.

“I pull from my molecular biology research side to research and assess devices, but actually in developing [and creating] the device, I pull from my pre-med side and experience shadowing doctors,” Fotopoulos said.

He explained that he hopes to innovate in surgery and medicine, either through research, medical technology, or a career as a doctor.

“It’s all about the amount of people I can help,” Fotopoulos said.

Despite the struggles and successes, the relationship between Fotopoulos and the researchers remains quite simple and genuine.

“In the end, I think we’re all just close friends enjoying running Blackwell,” wrote Konkol. “At the end of any meetings, we could always step back, make some jokes, and leave on a good note. That’s really the best part of Blackwell.”

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