In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frank Fornari.
A highly regarded industry expert in molecular genetics and pharmacology whose focus is on bringing greater meaning to motion to improve health, performance and quality of life, Dr. Frank Fornari is chairman and co-founder of the BioMech companies. BioMech develops and distributes state-of-the-art, real-time motion analytics technologies that quantify and improve patient and user outcomes in healthcare, sports/wellness, and industrial sectors. Prior to founding the biotechnology group, Dr. Fornari founded Dominion Diagnostics and managed several academic, industrial, and clinical laboratories and research facilities. Along with extensive experience in scientific research, clinical medicine, toxicology, chemistry, teaching and drug development, he holds several patents and a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and toxicology with postdoctoral training in medicinal and analytical chemistry, biophysics, drug design, and molecular genetics from Virginia Commonwealth University (formerly the Medical College of Virginia).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in the coal mines in western Pennsylvania — an area where no one had any financial advantage. We learned how to work hard at an early age. We didn’t have a lot, but everybody pitched in and helped each other. I had a full-time job when I was about eight years old, earning money to help my family. My grandparents and parents instilled in me the understanding that you don’t waste time; you make the time you have count. You make sure your time is productive because you don’t get it back. That’s how I’m wired.
In a somewhat related anecdote, everything we do has a genetic component. For example, my doctoral work was in molecular genetics and there are about eight genes tied to our brain’s learning center that give us the perception of time passing. If you’re learning new things all the time, your perception of time is that it’s passing much slower. If you think about when you were a kid in school learning new things, the clock never seemed to move. Fifteen minutes was forever. When people strive to have everything routine and scheduled, and when we get older, time flies by because those genes shut off when you’re not learning new things. If you continue to learn and challenge yourself, you can expand your life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Back in the 1990s, I had the good fortune of working with a bunch of great people on mathematically modeling molecules and drugs and designing compounds and we were able to play a small role in developing the first series of HIV drugs. Myself, my wife, and our colleagues in Virginia started mathematically modeling DNA and RNA. We used nothing but mathematics; nothing empirical, no experiments. Just simply coming up with ways, theoretically, to identify how to make a drug that would bind to DNA. We sent our information off to the other great people who worked on those medications — it was like the Manhattan Project with people from around the world throwing in their little piece of the puzzle — and in six months we had the HIV cocktail. It continues saving millions of lives to this day.
It was so interesting that somebody could organize that project; take pieces of knowledge from all of us, throw them together, and come up with something that worked. In science, for every 10,000 things you do, maybe one thing works. It really is a needle in a haystack. It took a lot of people, most importantly those with HIV — the people who knew they weren’t going to live another month or two who said ‘come take my blood, do whatever you need to do. I want to help eradicate this thing, so it doesn’t kill any more people.’ Those were the real heroes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That is my wife, Gwen Bauer, Ph.D. She’s brilliant and very humble — like most of your heroes in science who just do the work and don’t ask for credit. Working in science is wonderful, but it is also isolating. Only a very small part of the global population become scientists. It’s a tiny group that, unfortunately or fortunately, the whole world depends on. I was fortunate enough to meet Gwen during our graduate school studies. I have lots of ideas and many of them are really goofy and won’t work. She is probably the only person who can say ‘this one is good’ or ‘we’re not going to do this one’ and be right every time. Everybody needs someone like that in their life, whether it’s for science or to stay grounded.
The reality of science is that the guys who get out in front of the world are rare. And none of us do it alone. We all stand on each other’s shoulders. We build on someone else’s knowledge. Yes, you can do things by yourself, but you don’t have to do them alone — it’s one of my favorite phrases. Even when I was by myself, I always knew there were all these people like Gwen burning the midnight oil with me. Eventually, you get to talk to them and maybe you end up curing cancer together. That’s how this works.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I grew up in the upper Appalachia region of Pennsylvania and my grandparents were immigrants from Poland. My grandfather started working in the coal mines when he was nine and my grandmother came over at age 12. They had almost no education. They just worked hard every day.
When I was four, my incredibly intelligent grandmother looked at me and said ‘the only thing that you can’t stop doing in life is thinking, so you need to find a way to get really good at it. Because if you’re good at thinking, you’ll be able to make your way in the world.’ I always remember those words.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- The ability to make science understandable to everyone and to have them identify with it
- The ability to learn from and not be afraid of mistakes
- The constant need to solve problems and make things better
The global answer to this question is that you need to have an emotional driver. For me, I learned sadness and loss at an early age, cancer and pollution related disease wreaked havoc where I grew up…I was just so mad that everyone around me was dying of cancer and other horrific diseases that I decided I was going to go and kick its ass; I was going to do something, because it just wasn’t right that everyone was dying.
To do that, you need to be practical. You must have a constant need to solve problems. I have that because of how difficult life was when I was growing up. We faced major problems every day, like what to eat, how to fix our windows before winter, and how to make sure the car was running. We had problems thrown at us all the time, and when you’re around a lot of problems you have the opportunity to get really good at solving them. That became my driving purpose — solving problems and making things better.
With that comes learning from your mistakes. I’ve already learned so much from my mistakes, and I know I’m going to make a whole bunch more. It’s true and it’s good because if you want to learn you cannot be afraid to make a mistake. Too many people are scared they’re going to do something wrong. They don’t want to suffer any consequences, so they just don’t try. You can’t look at things that way.
The other characteristic, especially on the science side, is the ability to take the things we do and make them sound less complicated. Truthfully, the more I learn, the less intelligent I feel. That’s why it’s so important to make science understandable to everyone and find ways they can identify with it. Otherwise, they won’t take the drug or COVID test you just created. People need to understand why they’re doing something and how it benefits them, so rather than throw out a bunch of big words and act smarter than everyone else in the room, you have to find a way to identify with and understand the needs of each person whom you want to use your science.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
We are using quantitative motion tests and therapeutics to help people live healthier lives, to help healthcare providers identify pathology earlier, and to develop better treatments. Throughout my career I’ve focused on developing fundamental platforms, because if you have a scalable platform, you can build all kinds of things on it. At BioMech, that platform is motion analytics.
Everything in the universe has one thing in common: it moves. Whether it’s an electron spinning around a nucleus or me walking across the room, it’s movement. There’s an optimal way to move and a non-optimal way. As you go through life, changes in that motion define pathology, and changes in pathology define the way you move. They are intimately linked.
Movement is one of the most interesting frontiers in the human experience that we’ve not been able to measure in any real meaningful way. If you get your knee replaced and I ask how it feels, you’re going to say it feels great because you need it to feel great. But that’s not the way medicine is supposed to work. We’re supposed to be able to quantify that — not be satisfied with anecdotes or subjective information.
The technology that BioMech has been developing over the past few decades is, essentially, a fundamental imaging platform for motion. It’s going to become like a stethoscope or thermometer; a fundamental tool that every single discipline in healthcare and beyond can use to optimize motion. This type of science is being driven by AI and will help to not only identify patterns of motion but also allow the healthcare provider to suggest corrective changes to those patterns in real time.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Analyzing motion is a powerful way to assess function because inherent in all human motion are the fundamental aspects of balance, symmetry, range of motion, voluntary motor responses to stimuli and complex movements such as gait. BioMech Lab evaluates the critical properties of motion and provides immediate, automatic measurement, data processing, recording, and reporting for many standard tests and clinical conditions. What that means is that virtually any clinical specialty can now perform medically necessary tests, at the appropriate frequency, as part of the diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment plans.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Growing up around coal mines at a time when there weren’t any environmental regulations was nasty and we were exposed to all sorts of bad chemicals. The mines had a high sulfur content, and the owners would just drain them into the streams around where we lived. The stream that went through our town was yellow, so for the first four or five years of my life I thought that water was yellow. I remember my dad took us to Cleveland to visit some relatives and we went over a stream. I had no idea what was flowing in it, but I was certain it wasn’t water because it wasn’t yellow and didn’t smell bad.
It was a really bad environment with a tremendously high cancer rate. Most everybody was affected by it or succumbed to it, so as a kid I knew I wanted to go into science. I knew I could find a way to get these people a drug, procedure, or process that would save them or extend their lives. It just wasn’t fair that they were exposed to this stuff that was killing them. It continues even today. I recently lost high school classmates to cancer. It just goes on.
How do you think this might change the world?
For the first time, we’re able to ‘image’ human motion and the results are actionable. This will change the way every clinical discipline performs. It’s a platform that will become a fundamental laboratory diagnostic tool. Motion truly is medicine, and it will change not just traditional healthcare, but also how everyone engages in their health. It will empower patients to take better care of themselves.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Like any technology, you’re going to have versions that are precise, accurate and reproducible, and lesser versions that could potentially cause harm because they don’t meet the required standards. Fundamentally, human beings are driven by entropy. People want to do the easiest thing. Sometimes it isn’t the ethical, legal or proper thing, but it’s easy and you can make some money. We have to be cognizant of these kinds of knock offs as we go into the future and as our population gets larger and the market gets bigger; others will take technological innovations and make copies that are harmful. We hear stories about this all the time — a copycat drug that is killing or sickening people. It’s unfortunate, but it is what people do and it’s the biggest drawback I see with technology. We always worry about that because when you’re talking about science it could be the most minute detail that flips the switch from lifesaving to life-threatening.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? Please share a story or an example, for each.
In no particular order, the five things to know would be:
1. My focus has always been on making things that are accessible and affordable for everyone. For example, we used to design therapeutic drugs. It does me no good to make a cancer drug that costs $30,000 per pill, because that’s only going to help a few people. It doesn’t move the needle on cancer. We try to build everything in a way that makes our technology and therefore science affordable, scalable, and accessible. Corporations may not always feel that way, but the people on the bench, the scientists, don’t go into this saying ‘let’s make this the most expensive treatment we can make.’ That’s not even a thought for anybody who does this for a living.
2. Understand the NEED it addresses: In other words, it is not what you want to do, but what you NEED to do. One of the major problems we have in society is that people can’t distinguish between needs and wants. It’s one of the reasons why we have such disparities in income and other economic factors. At the end of the day, you must have only what you need. What you want is optional. We stay focused on what a patient needs, which keeps us grounded.
3. It needs to be clinically actionable: It must work and be able to move the needle for the patient, their practitioner, the payer, customer, etc. But we don’t just stop if something doesn’t work. We keep funding and pursuing it until it does work. Not everyone does that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who make something and throw a big marketing budget at it so people buy it regardless of whether or not it works. You may build a company with financial value, but it won’t be based on science and therefore isn’t clinically actionable.
4. It must be easy to use and expeditious: We live in an age where nothing is fast enough, and patience is no longer evolving. We want everything and we want to do everything right now. That extends to technology. If it takes an hour, no one will use it. That is why we designed BioMech Lab to be easy to use and to work in real time. It’s one of the only diagnostic tools that gives feedback to the end user while they’re performing the test, which in turn facilitates permanent learning. Think about this: the most important thing you can do as a human is eat, because you get immediate feedback from all five senses. What you learn about the food while you’re eating it becomes permanent in minutes. If I want to teach you something, the more senses I can touch at once the more permanent that learning will be and the faster we can remodel that neuronal firing pattern to make it permanent. That is why we need to build into technology ways to teach through sensory input and feedback mechanisms, whether auditory, visual, or tactile.
5. Generally, the education, training, and expertise to develop new technology: I believe that discovery really is an accident for the trained mind. Life is all about learning, and that is how we approached building our tool. You have to put the work into learning and developing expertise because no one is born with all the knowledge of the universe. Once you do, you can benefit from accidental discoveries that require a trained mind to recognize. For example, you could look at a petri dish and shrug off what you see as uninteresting. But I will get excited because I’ve experienced enough to understand it means something, even if I don’t know exactly what. I know enough to know that I need to see where the path leads. If you don’t have education, training, and expertise, you’ll miss a lot of things in this field.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Everybody struggles with existential questions around why we are here. But all you really need to know is that we are stuck here together, so we need to help each other through life. We can identify with some people and be critical of others, but if you wake up each day and focus on making your little piece of the world a bit better, you will make an impact. When you apply technology, you can communicate your small accomplishment to a massive audience and scale it into something that positively affects a broader part of the environment and society. In doing so, you are contributing to our survival as a species, because if our environment and society go away, we will become extinct. In other words, we must take care of the body we live in and the planet we live on not only to survive, but also to enjoy a high quality of life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a sit-down with the Director of Healthcare Finance Administration or Health and Human Services. We live in an age where everything has a financial component, including healthcare. We’re in the midst of a crisis on this planet, as population and poverty are growing at a tremendous rate, but resources are not. It has created a rapidly widening chasm between those delivering and those accessing healthcare — a gap that widens significantly when you add in the ability to afford healthcare.
One of the major ways to bridge this gap is with technology, but implementing technology in healthcare is a slow, laborious process because our system still focuses on payment based on how sick the patient is. We must find ways to accelerate our healthcare system’s shift away from incentivizing sick care and instead focus on wellness. One way to move that needle is to ensure everyone has access to the major health technologies that are lifesaving, life-sustaining, and life-improving. To get there, we need to connect with the people controlling the purse strings and work together toward finding a better way to address healthcare.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us.
This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Headquartered in Richmond, Va., BioMech develops and distributes state of the art, real-time motion analytics that quantify and improve patient/user outcomes in healthcare, sports/wellness, and industrial sectors. Founded by scientists and clinicians with expertise in biophysics, anatomy, genetics, neurophysiology, biomechanics, mathematics, materials sciences, fabrication, electrical engineering and computer science, BioMech’s core technology is comprised of leading-edge hardware and software – including integrated mobile apps and analytics, web applications, advanced sensors, visual learning systems and its wearable technology, BioMech Healthwear™ – provides real-time, precise, accurate and reproducible clinically relevant information and feedback, to improve health, quality of life, and performance. For more information, visit www.biomech.us.
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