Steve Xu is a physician-engineer at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago in the US. In 2018, he co-founded a company called Sibel Health together with his colleague John Rogers along with two engineering students. The team at Sibel work on addressing critical unmet clinical needs in medical monitoring. For example, their wireless sensors offer ICU-grade monitoring capabilities with soft, flexible mechanics that reduce the risk of skin injury on premature infants. This technology enables medical procedures to take place unhindered and provides lower cost access to ICU monitoring while also addressing the fundamental human need to allow a newborn baby to be held and comforted by their loved ones.
In 2020, Sibel Health was awarded the first Spinoff Prize, which was launched by Nature Research in partnership with Merck. We talk to Steve Xu about his career path and aspirations for the future.
“Decide” is a strong term. My father was an MD PhD and my mom was an MD. I guess I would have been disowned if I decided to be a lawyer. If I were to guess – after being given my first LEGOS set around the age of 3 – I was pretty sure I was destined to be an engineer. As an aspiring engineer, I thought about in high school what kind of engineer I wanted to be. I went through a fuel cell stage. I always liked bridges. I liked understanding how things were put together. Ultimately, I was drawn to the complexity of the human body – and all the ways things can go wrong that lead to human suffering.
I hate problems. I think at some fundamental levels – all engineers hate problems. They just bother me because you can see ways that things could work better.
As a physician-engineer, problems that affect patients bother me the most. It’s obsessive. Why do patients have to suffer with this? How can we make it better? Why isn’t this fixed yet? This is probably what led me to this branch of science. As a biomedical engineer and a physician, I felt I would be best positioned to solve problems for patients.
As a physician-engineer, the single biggest honor is to develop technology that improves the lives of patients at a meaningful scale. This is what is the underlying driver to commercialize our research – the ability to translate new knowledge into real clinical benefit.
I’ll borrow a quote from Elon Musk.
"Large-scale manufacturing, especially of a new technology, it's something between 1,000 and 10,000% harder than the prototype." shared by Elon Musk.
This is true for us. We’ve launched thousands of devices now – but launching millions with perfect performance every time when the data being generated from these devices will be used for life and death decision making for neonates…is a whole other challenge. But, it’s a challenge we’re tackling head on.
Before I left for college – my father wrote me a short Chinese proverb and framed it - 今天的事今天做.
There are many variations of this proverb in languages all around the world – essentially it means to not leave for tomorrow what can be done today. I think that constant sense of urgency, the need to accomplish things and push forward without wasting a minute, has stuck with me in everything I do. Patients shouldn’t have to wait for better solutions.
In two short words: help kids. The vision of our spinout, Sibel Health, is “better health data for all”. That is a calling for us – develop and commercialize sensors and software that astonish our doctors and nurses. The “for all” is also important – innovation in medical technology should not be limited to only diseases that affect rich and wealthy companies.
Go for it. Let go of any preconceived notions that business is a complete unknown or that scientists should leave the commercialization to others or that “I’m not a salesman.” It’s rare for an external industry partners or even investors to come in and support in new research in its infancy – it’s too high risk. If a researcher has an inclination and deep belief that their science would translate to real world benefit, then dive in. The researcher is the most qualified person.
About Steve Xu and Sibel Health
Steve Xu and the team at Sibel Health are seeking to address many unmet needs through their technology. To eliminate the scarring that occurs to the fragile skin of newborns connected to monitoring systems via harsh adhesives, to enable medical procedures to take place unhindered and to provide lower cost access to ICU monitoring. But perhaps the greatest unmet need that Sibel is addressing is fundamentally a human one, to enable a new born child to be held and comforted by their loved ones during their moment of greatest need.