Tillman Gerngross elected to NAE

by Debora Hyemin Han | 2/17/17 2:10am

Thayer School of Engineering professor Tillman Gerngross is the most recent Dartmouth faculty member to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, a nonprofit institution that offers “engineering leadership in service to the nation.” Last week, the NAE elected 84 new members. Gerngross was elected based on his founding of and leadership in two successful biotechnology companies, as well as for his discovery and manufacture of biopharmaceuticals, according to a press release by the NAE. The newly-elected members are to be formally inducted on Oct. 8 at the NAE’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The NAE, founded in 1964 as part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, has a mission to contribute to the well-being of the nation by forming a group of scientists to advise to the government on matters regarding engineering and technology, as well as by furthering the engineering profession, according to the NAE website. According to senior program officer for media and public relations Randy Atkins, members of the NAE search for “identifiable, outstanding contributions or accomplishments” by experts in all fields of engineering, including electrical, civil and bioengineering. To be considered for the NAE, an individual must initially be nominated by a current member of the organization, subsequently confirmed by three other members and then voted on by the entire NAE, according to Atkins.

Thayer dean and professor Joseph Helble said Gerngross’ election to the NAE is the “highest professional honor that engineers accord one another,” making Gerngross’ election a recognition of his work as an educator, scholar and entrepreneur. In addition, Helble said the honor draws attention to Thayer.

“What it says to the outside world is we have another one of [the] profession’s best, most talented and most creative engineers on our faculty,” Helble said.

During his time at Thayer, Gerngross founded five companies that he said fill a “specific gap” he saw in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

GlycoFi, Inc., a biotechnology firm that Gerngross co-founded and for which he served as scientific advisory board chair, created a specific type of glycosylation that has “the benefit of being very efficacious, very safe,” according to Gerngross. The company was sold to Merck — one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies — in 2006 for $400 million. Adimab, another biotechnology company that Gerngross co-founded and for which he currently serves as chief executive officer, makes it possible to engineer antibodies that look exactly like human antibodies, so that scientists are able to target pathogens to develop more effective care. Gerngross is also the co-founder and current chairman of Arsanis, a company that offers a new way to deal with multi-drug resistant bacteria, one of the few areas of modern medicine Gerngross said is not progressing as much in comparison to others, such as oncology. Avitide, for which Gerngross serves as board chairman, a company he co-founded with former graduate student Kevin Isett, former postdoctoral student and researcher Warren Kett and Jon Sheller ’09, develops technology to create a cost-effective purification solution for biopharmaceutical products. Finally, Gerngross serves as board chairman for Alector, a company he co-founded with neuroscientist Arnon Rosenthal that studies the immune system and genetic deficiencies present in human bodies to address neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Gerngross said he was able to create these companies by listening to the needs of people and building technologies that will help them meet those needs.

“It’s remarkably easy — you just listen to people,” he said. “You just listen to what people are telling you and then you ask the question, ‘Well, if that’s what they want, what are they going to need to get there?’”

He also called the pharmaceutical branch “a very noble enterprise,” emphasizing its potency as a means to impact a vast amount of people, though drug companies have done “a poor job in articulating what they actually do.” For example, Gerngross said that while doctors may be able to impact up to 40,000 people, one drug that is able to significantly change outcomes could impact millions.

“If you want to help people, there’s no better place to be than in drug discovery because one drug can change the outcome of so many people for a long time,” he said.

Engineering professor emeritus Elsa Garmire, elected to the NAE in 1989, said the College should be proud that Gerngross is one of the first members to become a member of the NAE based on the work he did while at Thayer. Using herself as an example, Garmire added that since many College faculty were elected to the NAE based on work they did outside of Dartmouth or prior to coming to Dartmouth, the fact that Gerngross’ election was based on his work during his time at Thayer distinguishes him from other College NAE members.

“I think we should be very proud of the fact that we have now an engineering school that can actually create members of the National Academy, and that’s very exciting,” she said.

Engineering professor emeritus Robert C. Dean Jr., elected to the NAE in 1977, said that unlike some awards given to scientists, the NAE is an “ongoing, continuous operation that lasts for years and years,” and that the number of Thayer professors who are inducted into the NAE recognizes the “quality of the engineering school.” He added that Thayer should have an active operation to get Dartmouth professors inducted to the NAE.

Helble said that his office oversees and coordinates efforts to push for more Thayer faculty to be inducted to the NAE. Because of the NAE’s peer nomination-based system, when Thayer nominates faculty for other external awards from difference professional societies, accumulating those awards could then lead to recognition by the NAE.

Gerngross agreed that nominations to the NAE are beneficial for the engineering school, which is “measured by the outside” by such accomplishments. However, he said that he did not do anything to pursue this nomination, and that it has not changed his life or the way he will go about his teaching and scholarly pursuits. Instead, he said he hopes to impact the NAE by helping it to move its focus toward the impact academia has on the rest of the world, making, for instance, the number of lives that are touched the gauge for impact rather than the number of papers published.

“We use very inadequate metrics to measure impact, and I would like to move the conversation into a more meaningful realm where really people’s lives that are touched become the center of that conversation,” Gerngross said.