Arsenal Medical CTO Jeff Carbeck on His Secretive Startup, Attractions of Clean Energy Sector

5/14/09

Jeff Carbeck walked away from a promising career in academia four years ago to co-found Arsenal Medical, to apply advances in materials science to the healthcare market. Carbeck and I talked last week about his work at Watertown, MA-based Arsenal (originally named WMR Biomedical), which Xconomy reported last week raised $8.2 million in a third round of venture capital. In addition to the advances in biomaterials development at the firm, we discussed his recent award of a fellowship with the New England Clean Energy Council.

Carbeck, who is also chief scientist at Cambridge, MA-based nanotech research firm Nano-Terra, is not as recognized in the Boston area as some of his Arsenal co-founders, such as Harvard’s George Whitesides or MIT inventor Bob Langer. Still, Carbeck is very much on the leading edge of translating discoveries in material science for use in medical products, clean technology, and a variety of other disciplines. (Nano-Terra, in fact, is open to tackling R&D challenges in multiple industries except for life sciences.)

He’s also one of the top chemical engineers to come out of the Harvard lab of Whitesides, the chairman and initial inventor at Nano-Terra. (Whitesides’ other protégés include North Bridge Venture Partners general partner Carmichael Roberts and John Rogers, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.)

At Arsenal, Carbeck oversees development of biomedical devices in the fields of cardiology and ophthalmology. He guarded some of the fine details of the products under development, but he shed new light on some of the problems they hope to solve.

The startup is developing devices with materials that can treat arterial disease at the molecular and cellular level—rather than simply dealing with the problem mechanically with an arterial stent to prop open clogged arteries. It’s also studying materials that could deliver drugs to different regions of the eye. The company is exploring multiple other medical uses for proprietary materials at the firm, he says. Interestingly, Arsenal was not founded around a specific technology, yet subsequent to its launch has developed its own materials and gained rights to other technologies from Langer’s lab at MIT as well as research institutions not affiliated with the firm.

“I guess I see the world through the eyes of a chemical engineer who really thinks about issues of transforming materials,” Carbeck says, “whether it’s for medical technology or how materials are used for a lot of other things like energy.”

After finishing his postdoctoral research in Whitesides’ lab in 1997, Carbeck spent the next seven years of his career establishing himself in the realm of academia as a faculty member in the departments of chemical engineering and molecular biology at Princeton University. Then he was offered a coveted tenure-track professorship at Tufts University, where he was planning to focus on applying material science discoveries to clinical care. Yet he changed course after talking over the Tufts job with former lab mate Roberts, who had gone directly into private industry after finishing work in Whitesides’ lab in the mid-1990s. (Roberts gave us an overview of his latest entrepreneurial adventures with startups such as 1366 Technologies, Arsenal, and MC10 back in March.)

As Carbeck tells it, Roberts told him he could do more to advance material science discoveries from the lab into clinical use at a company than in an academic setting. Carbeck warmed up to Roberts’ idea enough to pass on the offer from Tufts and become a founder of Arsenal as well as Nano-Terra.

“I don’t right now see any reason why I’d go back to academics,” he says. “I really like the entrepreneurial world, approaching it as a technically sophisticated person who is learning more and more about business all the time.”

In fact, I was talking to Carbeck shortly after he had finished a session of his fellowship program with the New England Clean Energy Council. The council started the program last year to introduce executives with various backgrounds to the unique dynamics of the clean energy sector. Carbeck, for instance, is interested in opportunities to do the engineering required to scale up cleantech discoveries in labs to commercial-sized processes. (We wrote recently about one such discovery, MIT professor Daniel Nocera’s potential breakthrough for converting water into hydrogen gas, which faces technical challenges before his Cambridge startup Sun Catalytix can make hydrogen on a commercial scale.)

My next question for Carbeck was the obvious one: Is he planning to make a career move into the cleantech sector?

“I’m going to be doing something where material science and chemical engineering really play the lead role, but what specific area it’s going to be in is hard to say now,” he says. “But I tell you that the things I’m learning in the clean energy space are really exciting.”

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