The Foundry for American Biotechnology: Interview with an Expert

The best way to work with us is to present your ideas. We can’t wait to hear them.
Joe Hamel, Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)

America’s biotech industry just got a $51 million dollar shot to the arm in the form of a grant for the first Foundry for American Biotechnology. Launched by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), its goal is to produce technological solutions that can enhance medical care, respond to security threats, and add to the US bio-economy.

“The idea for the Foundry for American Biotechnology started with a dedicated group from across the U.S. government,” says Joe Hamel, the Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). “We all recognized the need to continue strategic investments in the U.S. bio-economy in order to ensure that America stayed at the forefront of biotechnology and precision medicine applications. ”

But this isn’t purely a government operation: it’s a public-private partnership with an all-star team. Headquartered in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Foundry is managed in conjunction with the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), led by iconic inventor Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research Corp.

Meet the Expert: Joe Hamel (HHS ASPR)

Joe Hamel

Joe Hamel is the Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). He received his BA in molecular biology from Colgate University and his MS in biotechnology from John Hopkins University. Prior to joining the ASPR, Hamel worked as a biologist for the US Army, where he also served as a team leader and chief of planning and policy. Later, Hamel was a program director for the Department of Homeland Security, and then a program manager at Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory. You can find him on Twitter (@JoeHamel9).

Making Waves: The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) & The Foundry

DEKA has made plenty of headlines before. Its water purification device, Slingshot, turned red liquid filled with crushed Doritos into clear, colorless water on The Colbert Report in 2008. DEKA’s product line includes a portable dialysis machine, the Segway, and a bionic prosthesis called Luke Arm (named as such for its resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in the latter half of the Star Wars trilogy). So what will they be working on at the Foundry?

“The first project is a transition effort between ASPR and the DoD Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),” Hamel says, “and it’s a win-win.”

It started in October of 2018, when ASPR pulled together experts from industry, academia and government to start a conversation about an effort called Priority Medicines on Demand. DARPA was a part of that group and had promising technologies that could help change how pharmaceuticals are made.

ASPR, which oversees the Strategic National Stockpile, saw tremendous potential in the ability to use this technology to manufacture essential medicines in a highly distributed way throughout the United States, reducing the reliance on a complex global supply chain to ensure essential medicines were always available.

The goal is to produce an automated, portable device that can manufacture medications on-demand to be used for disaster recovery, or for patients and service members in rural areas that don’t have easy access to a well-equipped pharmacy. It has a renewed importance in the face of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and it reinforces what public-partnerships can do best: cut down on the red tape and focus on deliverable game-changing solutions.

The Foundry is more than a one-trick pony. It engages with regional experts and houses a wet lab, dry lab, idea lab, learning zone, and manufacturing space that includes access to DEKA’s robust capabilities in design, modeling, prototyping, and simulation. It also includes a commercialization program that should reduce the need for purely governmental agencies to store medications, vaccines, diagnostics, and equipment.

For the first Foundry for American Biotechnology, what seems like science fiction is actually the present tense. Given that, what’s the future look like? According to Hamel, that’s up to the new generation of biotechnologists coming through the ranks.

“We are living in the century of biology,” Hamel says, in his advice to those just starting their careers in biotechnology. “Keep pursuing those dreams and don’t get bogged down with the status quo—always question it. Also, don’t forget to invest your time in the arts as well as the sciences. To truly change the world, creative thinkers have to see beyond a protocol or technical specification and collide scientific applications in new ways.”

Innovators who are interested in using the Foundry can learn more about the current problems ASPR is looking to solve, and the ASPR will accept proposals to develop solutions until late September 2020: “The best way to work with us is to present your ideas,” Hamel says. “We can’t wait to hear them.”

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.