There’s a lot to be said for the starpower in Philadelphia’s most brainy square mile in University City, where the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University City Science Center and other related life sciences and technology assets come together.
Sometimes that starpower is tapped to create amazing companies and technologies.
After Daniel Mollicone earned his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Drexel, he won an award for Most Promising Doctoral Graduate in Life Sciences and founded research technology company Pulsar Informatics in 2001 with Matthew Van Whalen. The pair soon identified that a renowned industry leader was right in their backyard – Dr. David Dinges, a Penn professor and pioneer in sleep research.
They wound up meeting on the other side of the country at a conference in Seattle in 2003 and Dinges liked what he saw. Soon, Mollicone was training with Dinges back at his lab in Philadelphia, and before long, Pulsar Informatics was growing in the Science Center’s Port Business Incubator. The company develops state-of-the-art technology that assesses behavioral alertness, helping reduce fatigue-related risks. Pulsar Informatics supports NASA, and the transportation industry.
How important was meeting Dinges the way you did?
He is famous in his industry. I hit the jackpot as a student and in our business, getting to train under one of the most compelling, dynamic, intelligent and ethical academics in the world. I didn’t know it at the time. But it was really a stroke of good luck. He taught me how to be a better scientist, professional nd person. I always think he should run for President. These are the people who should be running the country.
How have you worked together?
He had a need for us and we had a need for him. He had a problem set. We had the competency to develop the solutions. The collaboration was he was engaged with nearly every federal agency, the Department of Defense, NASA, Homeland Security, and they all have problems relative to fatigue risk management and assessment of human cognitive capability. As a scientist he has a 30-plus year, deep understanding of these biological issues and operational issues. But the world continues to become more sophisticated in terms of tools available and analytics of large data sets and to interpret these data sets. We are an engineering company and software development company and he was engaged on a number of projects that had engineering components as part of the problem set. It has been an incredibly productive collaboration, allowing him to take part in field studies and other scientific exploration and allowing us to develop these tools that become products that we sell.
What you do is incredibly scientific and complicated. Can you break it down for us?
Our products can be broken down into three categories. First, to assess the status of the brain and behavior (neurocognitive status). Our expertise is being able to assess status, whether it’s behavioral alertness or working memory, precisely and accurately. There are a lot of tools out there that are not focused on accuracy and precision. Our goal is to make the best scientific tools that are most accurate and reliable and precise. Then you have this data, you want to turn this data into knowledge and we have algorithms and forecasting models and predictive models. We are interpreting results to aid in the diagnosis in treatment of diseases that affect cognition and occupational capability. We are predicting the operator’s fatigue-related reliability, in terms of the ability to do their job and take risk relative to duty schedules and the nature of their work. The third component of our product that we focus heavily on is developing software tools that have high usability and communicate complicated concepts and break down into actionable information to make wise operational decisions. The effectiveness of our user interface and display is critical.
How have you grown?
We work really hard and we strive to be very responsive to what customers are asking and we’ve grown primarily through referral where someone has a problem set and someone else recommends us because we’ve done an excellent job for them. The phone rings and we get the strangest phone calls from industries we haven’t worked in. The last 24 hours we received a phone call from an Indonesian airline needing help setting up a program within their airline to manage fatigue risk.
What’s the biggest challenge your company has overcome?
NASA wanted to employ a test developed by Dinges, a computer-based test to assess alertness level. The problem was the test was done on this box and it was always done where a scientist gave it to a subject. Astronauts needed to do this on an International Space Station and you can’t just keep putting boxes in space. It’s hugely expensive and constrained. So they have laptops on the space station and what they needed was a software version of this test.
The challenge was when we’re measuring reaction times we’re measuring in the millisecond range and detecting deficiencies on that time scale to determine fatigue. Windows-based computers are not designed to be real-time data acquisition systems. When you type on the keyboard, so long as it shows up in one-tenth of a second your brain considers it real-time. The second thing was the test had to be self-administered by astronauts and they had to be able to do it themselves and get results that were meaningful to them. That was the near-impossible task.
We applied our engineering efforts and half a decade of effort to develop a number of robotic processes and modifications to achieve that on a Windows software platform. That test is now flying in the International Space Station.
What resources have you taken advantage of to grow the company?
The Dean of Biomedical Engineering at Drexel (). She’s a force in the Philadelphia community and really promotes entrepreneurship and she has been a resource and supporter for us.
There’s also a state granting program (Keystone Innovation Zone in University City). We get money from the state based on year-over-year growth and they match a component of that growth. Plus the Science Center is an excellent organization. We’ve been a tenant in their incubator facility as well as having taken dedicated office space and they’re an incredibly effective organization.
Why is what you do important?
Humans are all the same. Our response to fatigue is ever-present. You are not impervious to fatigue. You can’t train away fatigue. Willpower isn’t reliable. Biology is the same regardless of your profession. What’s different is the economic constraints and expertise. If the system goes offline and needs critical maintenance, that needs trumps the need to work. Sometimes you have to just do the work. There’s a practicality. You have to engage these individuals to appreciate those constraints. It is important for us to step into other’s people’s shoes.
What are you working on right now?
Currently we’re developing technology, a wrist-worn sensor that helps detect when you’re awake or asleep. So we’re releasing a product in this space, which is very attractive. It has attracted the likes of Nike.
— by Joe Petrucci
3401 Market St. Philadelphia, PA 19104