Going from uni lab to hospital theatre demands huge sacrifice

Going from uni lab to hospital theatre demands huge sacrifice

Andreas Fouras imagined he would always be a university professor. The research milieu suited him and he made the transition from graduate to professor in biomechanical engineering in a remarkably short six years.

Now he has logged seven years running a biomedical company and his key product – an algorithm that maps air flows in human lungs – has come into its own during the pandemic.

The story of his business, 4DMedical, and his transition from university researcher to business person is a great example of what can be achieved when all the elements align: university commitment, research funding bodies, a good product and an individual brave enough to risk their own capital.

Dr Fouras trained as a mechanical engineer with an interest in air flows. His early work at Monash University involved wind tunnels and mapping air flows over things like cars and aircraft.

He started his PhD in 2005 and quickly became a part of the emerging division of biomedical engineering.

“My colleagues were very interested in me doing medical research,” Dr Fouras says. “I won some fellowships and was funded as a medical researcher.

“I thought I was dedicated to the research but something tripped in my head and I became driven by the outcome of what my research could deliver.

“The NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) had a scheme to fund researchers to make the very first steps from research to a product and to a company. We won one of those.”

The “we” he refers to was by then his own research group, the Laboratory for Dynamic Imaging – with about 25 staff.

“I started off with the typical view that exists in uni: I would stay a successful academic and the uni would spin off the tech into a company. And that model works for me.

“But it is incredibly difficult to take an idea and turn it from an equation, into some software, and then to a technology and then to a project and then to a business.

“You really need to have people who are dedicated so when the demands get unreasonable you have people who will put in unreasonable effort to overcome them.”

So he took the challenging step of doing it himself. With support from Monash, Dr Fouras created a company and took it to the US, where he could access the giant market for medical technology.

We haven’t yet got the right institutional environment in Australia to maximise the commercialisation of our intellectual property.

— John Spoehr, Flinders University professor

It sounds easy but his story has all the tropes of a suspense-laden film: he borrowed against his house to pay the lawyers who helped raise the first seed money.

He sold his house to finance the transition to California (his wife supported him. “She believes in helping the millions of people who make bad decisions every year because of the wrong information about their lung health,” he says).

And in January of his first year he had to borrow on his credit cards to meet the payroll.

He received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration and started to build a business.

The intellectual property of the company is a series of algorithms that convert X-ray images into four-dimensional data (that’s three dimensions plus time), enabling doctors to understand air flow within the lung and to identify respiratory deficiencies earlier and with greater sensitivity.

Dr Fouras agrees the technology will come into its own now.